When I first arrived in Granada in the middle of January a few years ago, I quickly started spotting common mallow (Malva sylvestris) growing all over the place, often forming wide sprawling mats of greenery on the edges of farmland and even inside the grounds of a ruined castle. Though I was looking forward to learning some of the thousands of wild plants that grow in Andalusia that were new to me, it was also good to spot many familiar plants and know that I would not have to start foraging from scratch.
Despite it only being the beginning of the year, the generous Mediterranean climate had supplied many mallow plants with enough sunlight to reach heights that I rarely see in the UK. By the middle of March, mallow had already started to shoot up and produce its characteristic profusion of pinkish purple blooms, brightening the neglected urban areas it is so fond of.
The castle where I spotted the mallow sat atop the rocks in a small town called Salobreña, overlooking the sea. It was built by the Muslims that once ruled large parts of the Iberian peninsula, particularly in Al-Andalus, as this was where they first arrived when they invaded from North Africa from the area that is now Morocco, in the 8th century.
Thinking through this connection, I remembered when I spent some time in Sidi Ifni in the South of Morocco. Here, giant bunches of mallow leaves were a common sight in the vegetable markets, and cheaper than the spinach as presumably they sprung up as weeds between other crops. When I asked what they were used for I was told they were added to soups.
Presumably, one reason they are used in soups is to thicken them as mallow is high in mucilage. If you scrape the stem of a mallow leaf you can feel the texture of the mucilage. When trying to describe mucilage words that come to mind are slimy, viscous and sticky – none of which sound particularly appetising… but if you know how to work with it you can still make tasty food from mucilaginous plants, and it also has a medicinal use. If you like okra you will know what I am talking about, which is in the same family.
Mucilage is a polysaccharide that is produced by nearly all plants, but is particularly high in plants in the mallow family (Malvaceae). This includes marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis), the roots of which have long been valued for their demulcent effect: the mucilage forms a soothing coating for inflamed mucous membranes. This property means they have been used since at least the Egyptian era to help with sore throats. The sweet marshmallow evolved from this medicinal use, though they are no longer made form the plant. One of my herbalist teachers recommended mucilaginous plants to her patients to promote healthy bacteria in the digestive system.
So, how to use the mallow leaves I found in Spain? In London I would use the leaves in mixed greens when I made borek, and to thicken spicy lentil soup, I had also heard they were stir fried and served with scrambled eggs in Turkey.
I wanted to try something different, so decided to adapt one of the few vegetarian tapas dishes available in Granada – espinacas con garbazos (spinach with chickpeas). The basic flavours I tasted were cumin, lemon juice and garlic, and of course plenty of olive oil and some salt. The use of cumin stands out on a Spanish menu and I believe points to the historical North African influence.
I thought it likely that greens other than spinach were used at one point, and had a go at making my own version using mallow leaves. The main difference with using mallow compared to spinach is that they can actually be quite dry if just fried, so need to be steamed before adding. I was pleased with the result, and afterwards I found some recipes for variations of espinacas con garbanzos that use almonds and breadcrumbs fried in olive oil and added as a topping or stirred through.
- A bagful of mallow leaves
- A large jar of chickpeas, drained
- 4 teaspoons cumin seeds
- Half a bulb of garlic, crushed
- Juice of one lemon
- Olive oil
- Salt to taste
Rinse the mallow leaves, bunch together tightly and slice roughly, about 1cm gaps.
Add leaves to a pan with around 1 small cup of water and steam gently on a low heat covered with a lid, until wilted through. Set aside.
Dry toast the cumin seeds in a large frying pan until slightly browned, grind in a pestle and mortar or spice grinder.
Fry the cumin in the olive oil on a medium heat for a minute, then add the garlic, stirring for about two minutes.
Add the chickpeas, coating in the oil, then stir in the mallow. Cover with a large lid and simmer gently for 10-15 minutes, adding a little water if it starts to dry out.
Add salt & lemon juice to taste.
Serve on its own or with bread.