For years I have been planning a trip to Greece, but it hasn't happened yet. I've traveled to the other end of the world, but a neighboring country that tourists cross continents to visit, in order to be dazzled by its beauty, intoxicated by its ancient culture and to experience some of its tastes - I haven't been there yet. All too often we search distant horizons looking for the exotic, and miss what's right under our noses. This also applies, of course, to everything relating to food.
Mallow leaves (known in Arabic as hubeza, and in Hebrew as halamit, lehem yerushalmi or lehem aravi) don't have the chic of foods shipped in refrigerated crates from the ends of the earth, and they are the total opposite of other raw foods that are seemingly hard to get. In season, from February to April approximately, they grow abundantly all over Israel: in fields, alongside the roads, on traffic islands and presumably also in your neighborhood, perhaps even in the yard behind your building.
The common mallow plant is almost entirely edible. The leaves resemble grape leaves in their shape, and they can be stuffed and cooked in the same way. When cooked, the mallow leaves darken and lose some of their volume, as do spinach leaves - which mallow can also be a substitute for (although its texture is coarse and tougher than that of spinach, and they taste different). Vegetable omelets, casseroles, meat and bean stews, baked goods, soups - all are dishes to which cooked and chopped mallow leaves can be added along with lots of onions, olive oil and lemon juice. The young and softer leaves can be served uncooked in fresh green salads.
The small fruits of the mallow, that kids refer to as lehem aravi, are small, white or very light green and wheel-shaped. They are divided into tiny segments, wrapped in leaves, and are crunchy in the mouth. The purplish-white flowers are also edible and can be used to garnish salad.
Mallow played an important role in the history of Jerusalem during the siege of the War of Independence. When the convoys bearing food had trouble reaching the city, mallow was transformed into a kind of modern version of manna. Jerusalemites went out to the fields to pick the leaves, which are very nutritious (rich in iron and vitamins A and C), and some even attribute medicinal qualities to them. The Jerusalem radio station, Kol Hamagen, broadcast instructions for cooking mallow and recipes calling for it to the besieged residents of the city. The broadcasts were also picked up in Jordan and sparked victory celebrations. Radio Amman announced that the fact that the Jews were eating leaves, food for donkeys and cattle, was a sign that they were dying of starvation and that their surrender was not far off. But the Jerusalemites ate the mallow and hung on, and the Israel Defense Forces found a way to reach the city.
Ahead of the state's 30th independence celebrations, in an operation intended to recall and honor the leaves that helped Jerusalemites hold on during the siege, children were sent to pick mallow leaves. The leaves were frozen by Sunfrost, sold at a symbolic price and distributed together with recipes from the period of the siege. Another 30 years have passed since then, and this is perhaps a good opportunity to recall the mallow growing right under our noses and put it back on the table.