12 September 2009

Moment Magazine: The pomegranate

Moment Magazine's new issue is out with a timely article by famed cookbook author Joan Nathan on the pomegranate, which features prominently in Rosh Hashanah celebrations. The holiday begins September 18 this year.

The article features an extensive history of this wonderful and colorful fruit as well as links to recipes and cultural and community history.

My late-father-in-law's large garden in Karaj, now a very much built-up bedroom suburb of Teheran but then a real schlep to the middle of nowhere, had as one of its features an anarestan, or pomegranate orchard. On site, the caretaker and his family also had sheep, chickens, mulberry trees, greenhouses, a big pool that came in handy during the summer (for swimming or cooling watermelons), shade trees for rolling out Persian carpets and taking a nap, and fantastically sweet tiny grapes we called yaghouti (ruby), but which look like the tiny champagne grapes I've seen in the US.

According to Nathan,

It was about 20 years ago that I saw a pomegranate blessed as the first fruit of the New Year at a Rosh Hashanah table. I was a guest of Rabbi Yosef Zadok, the head of Jerusalem’s Yemenite community. A master silversmith from a long line of craftsmen—his grandfather made coins for the king of Yemen—Zadok continued to practice the craft until he was in his 90s. We were gathered in the living room of the rabbi’s apartment above his workshop near Mea Shearim. The centerpiece of the table was a huge bowl filled with pomegranates and dotted with a few grapes and dates—three of the holy fruits in the land of Canaan, as mentioned in the Book of Deuteronomy. As the rabbi lifted the pomegranate high over his head, he told me that it is a sign of fertility, peace and prosperity for the New Year.

After the prayers, they ate ga'le, a fruit-and-nut combo (with grapes, pomegranate seeds, pecans, walnuts, peanuts and beans).

One of the oldest and most beloved fruits known to mankind, the red pomegranate, native to southwestern Asia around the Caspian Sea, has been grown in countries such as Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Armenia and Israel for more than 3,500 years. The word pomegranate comes from the Latin pomum and granatus, or “seedy apple.” The Hebrew word rimon, which comes from the Egyptian rmn.

Israeli soldiers call a hand grenade rimon yad (hand pomegranate).

The pomegranate is a symbol of abundance, knowledge, fertility and peace, and may have been the apple in the Garden of Eden, although others say it might have also been quince, fig or grapes. Supposedly, each pomegranate contains 613 seeds (I've never counted them) the same number as mitzvot in the Torah. It was so important that it appeared as a design element on high priests' robes, coins and temple pillars. In Iran, as a fixture on Rosh Hashanah tables (and part of the blessing rituals), it was a sign of fertility, and newly married couples would eat the seeds as the elders said they would have as many children as the seeds they ate.

They are used in drinks and as food. Persians make the classic fesenjan dish, which marries pomegranate paste (rob-e-anar) with ground walnuts. Chicken (breast), turkey or duck is cooked in this delicious sauce, and served over white steamed Basmati rice. It is the epitome of classic Persian cuisine and always found on holiday tables and at special occasions, while the seeds adorn salads and rice and are even sprinkled on yoghurt-and-vegetable salads to add color.

Although Nathan talks about learning from Persian families how to make a "juice box" from the fruit, but I remember my own parents in the Bronx doing the same thing when I was a young child. They were from nowhere near Iran, with their parents or grandparents most recently from Latvia, Belarus, Galicia and Lithuania.

The technique involves rolling the fruit on the kitchen counter until you stop hearing noises (squashing of the seeds to release the juice, sort of like waiting for popcorn to stop popping), sticking a metal skewer or sharp pointed knife into the hard rind and then inserting a straw to drink the juice.

Nathan notes that the fruit stays fresh for months with its hard rind, so it was a good item for trade. Middle Eastern merchants brought them to Europe where Eastern European Jews had them for Rosh Hashanah.

When we lived in Los Angeles and in Southern Nevada, neighbors had pomegranate trees. If they grew in dry Iran, they would grow anywhere in the US Southwest. Although Nathan says it was only rediscovered in the west after the Iranian revolution, I saw it long before that.

The best rob-e-anar (pomegranate paste) comes from Iran or from Turkey and I can buy it here in Tel Aviv at many Persian-owned stores on Levinsky. Some brands are more tart, others are more sweet-and-sour, which is the better kind.

The story also mentions Najmieh Batmanglij who authored the best Persian cookbook, in my opinion. Her first book in 1986 was The Food of Life, but the updated edition (much much better) is The New Food of Life. There are many ways to use pomegranates in the book, including the classic fesenjan, syrups and more. The book is virtually foolproof and I give it as gifts, although it is getting hard to find these days. Classic Persian cooking is simple for those who keep the laws of kashrut. Few recipes mix meat and dairy, so few adjustments need to be made.

Health benefits are many, and the fruit (or the juice, now very popular and available everywhere) claims vitamins C and B, prevents heart disease and atherosclerosis, reduces dental plaque and lowers the risk of prostate cancer. It's also delicious, although it may be too tart for some people, so sweeten to taste.

For more pomegranate recipes by Joan Nathan, click here. There is a recipe for fesenjan, but no Persian cook worth her salt would make it that way. Ketchup? Chicken thighs? Oy vey. The other recipes are interesting, however.

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