A Taste of Mallow

A Taste of Mallow (Malva nicaeensis)

Dr. Sarah Oren and Ouria Orren, Head Botanist

“Can what is tasteless be eaten without salt? Does slimy halamot juice have any flavor?” (Job 6:6).

These descriptions are made by Job as he laments the terrible downturn his life has taken. He claims that life is meant to hold certain undeniable, reliable truths such as the tastelessness of unsalted food or the repugnant sensation of juice of the halamot.

Regarding these foods he adds “I refuse to touch them; they are like food when I am sick” (6:7).

Biblical commentators have struggled to identify the halamot of verse 6. Some suggestions include meaningless (“tasteless”) words, or egg whites, or and a particular cheese called “halum” in Arabic that secrets a slimy juice and has a vile taste. Every one of these identifications relies, among other things, on the etymology of the word itself.

Other commentators and scholars believe that halamot refers to a plant. Here too, several possible candidates have been suggested over the years.

Today it is widely accepted by scholars that the halamot is in fact a plant and it has been identified as Malva nicaeensis, or mallow, whose modern Hebrew name, halamit, is almost identical to the biblical halamot. The plant is easily recognized by its edible fruit that resemble a small, round loaf of sliced bread. Inverting the Hebrew letters gives us the word lehem – bread. This is also reflected in the Arabic name for the plant – hubeza, from the Arabic word hubz, bread. The round leaves of the mallow are edible only after they are cooked, which removes the slimy juice.

The mallow is an annual plant that reaches a height of some 50 cm (20 inches). It blossoms from February to June, and has pink, five-petaled leaves, approximately 2.5 cm (about one inch) in diameter.

Mallows thrive on nitrogen, and are therefore commonly found in cultivated areas, by road sides, in gardens, garbage heaps, and grazing areas where livestock drop their nitrogen-rich manure. The genus Malva includes some 30 species that are found throughout Europe, Asia and Africa. A small number of Malva species found their way to other parts of the world, including the United States. Israel is home to six species of the plant, and at Neot Kedumim visitors can see the mallow (Malva nicaeensis) and the small-flowered mallow (Malva parviflora).

In folk medicine, mallow is used to bandage wounds and reduce swelling. Studies have found that the mallow is rich in tannins, anti-bacterial components, anti-oxidants, as well as vitamin A, which also makes it a useful ingredient in shampoo to strengthen hair follicles.

The mallow spreads itself over a large area and is an integral part of the green landscape that characterizes Israel in the winter months. This green covering was a part of the natural outdoor “buffet table” of our ancestors during the winter months when the fruit trees they cultivated were in deep hibernation. This “vegetable of the field” is an important addition to the diet of animals and people. “As the ox consumes the vegetable of the field” (Numbers 22:4), certainly included the mallow.

In the modern history of the State of Israel, this plant also holds a place of honor regarding the steadfast courage of the pre-state Jewish population of Jerusalem. In November 1947 the United Nations ratified the Partition Plan that created Jewish state. The response of Jerusalem’s Arabs and the Jordanian legion was swift: the city’s Jews were attacked and the Old City placed under siege. By spring of 1948, the Arab forces cut the main road into Jerusalem, making it impossible to bring food and other basic supplies into the city.

The military governor of Jerusalem at the time, Canadian-born Dov Yosef, later wrote in his book “The Faithful City: The Siege of Jerusalem, 1948” that to survive the siege and assuage the pangs of hunger, the residents had their children go into the nearby fields and pick mallows – halamit. The plant tastes like spinach, and it was packaged and sold in Jerusalem as “New Zealand spinach.” On local radio broadcasts people were told how to prepare the “spinach.” However, the Jordanians also listened to the Hebrew broadcasts and when they heard that the besieged Jews were eating hubeza – the food of poor people and donkeys, they realized that the situation of the Jews was so dire that the Old City of Jerusalem would soon fall. So the Jews stopped the radio broadcasts, and passed on the culinary information via runners and word of mouth. The food was not fancy. But it did allow the Jews of Jerusalem to hold out and survive the siege.

The short winter months and the green covering of nature give us the chance to know the abundance of edible plants of the field, like the halamit. Gathering the leaves and preparing them into edible, even tasty, food makes for a unique healthy culinary experience as well as a cultural experience that gives us a taste of how our forefathers lived in this land, and how they used the natural flora to enrich their winter dietary needs.

While the mallow may have been known as the food of the poor, it is often the poor who have the knowledge and understanding to distinguish between plants that are edible and healthy, and those that are not. These are the people who have the wisdom of nature to sense the true grace of God to provide for them. The 8th century BCE Greek poet Hesiod wrote that the rich were “stupid…they know not how much more full the half is than the whole, or how much can be benefitted from the mallow.”