Sunday, November 13, 2011

Pomegranates - The Ruby Jewels From The Ancient East

A Pomegranate split open showing its juicy red seeds
Photograph by Leticia Alaniz © 2005  All Rights Reserved
One of the most ancient fruits known to man has long been associated in religion and mythology as a symbol so powerful that it has long endured thousands of years.  Considered to be the fruit of love and passion, it is no wonder it is associated with desire, fertility and marriage, abundance and prosperity, life and death, rebirth and eternal life.  The ruby red interior fruits of the pomegranate have been appreciated and valued as the fruit of perfection, the product of a woman's womb and the red of her lips.  

Pomegranates are a fruit known by their scientific name as Punica granatum.  They are native to the land known in ancient times as Persia, now modern Iran.  The name "pomegranate" derives from Latin pōmum apple and grānātus  "seeded" or grain.  By the spanish it is called granada, by the French, grenade.  The ancient Persians called it dulim or dulima.   In classic Sanskrit the word was taken from the Persians dadima or dalim.  They grow from a deciduous shrub or small tree that reaches a height between five to eight meters.  The shrub is much-branched, more or less spiny, and extremely long lived, some specimens have been known to have survived two centuries.  
A Pomegranate Bloom
Nearly round but crowned at the base by the prominent calyx, the fruit which can measure anywhere between 2 1/2 to 5 inches (6.25-12.5cm) wide, has a tough, leathery skin or rind, yellow more or less overlaid with light or deep pink or rich red.  The interior is separated by membranous walls and white spongy tissue into compartments packed tight with transparent sacs filled with tart, flavorful, fleshy, juicy, red, pink or whitish pulp.  

Pomegranates are a fruit long steeped in history and romance.  For centuries it has been admired as a fruit of passion for its luscious bright red color.  It has been featured in Egyptian mythology and art, praised in the Old Testament of the Bible, written and described poetically in the Quran and in the Babylonian Talmud, and it was carried by desert caravans for the sake of its thirst-quenching juice.  During the Moorish conquest of 711, the ancient Andalusan city of Granada, Spain was renamed after the fruit.   Spanish colonists later introduced the fruit to the Caribbean and Latin America.  It traveled to central and southern India from Iran about the first century A.D. and was reported growing in Indonesia in 1416.  It has been cultivated throughout India and the drier parts of southeast Asia, Malaya, the East Indies and Tropical Africa.  

It is rather commonly planted and has become naturalized in Bermuda, West Indies and warm areas of South and Central America.  In Mexico it is a cherished and much admired plant and has become a much celebrated fruit associated with harvests and religious festivals.  During pomegranate season, the markets are filled with mountains of these fruits beautifully displayed half open with the jewels sparkling and enticing the eyes of passersby.  

Pomegranate juice is rich in vitamin C and is a good source of potassium, polyphenols such as tannins and flavonoids and is an excellent source of vitamin B5.  

Believed to be rich in fiber and antioxidants, for thousands of years it has been used medicinally in the reduction of heart disease and in eradicating free radicals which cause cancer.  It is known to reduce high blood pressure, inhibit viral infections, and its extracts have antibacterial effects against dental plaque.  

Since medieval times, pomegranates were used to cure blood diseases, following the principle of similarity that was identified because of its juice being a blood red color.  It has long been valued because of its magnificent astringent properties.  In Ayurvedic medicine every part of the plant (root, bark, flowers, fruit, leaves) is used for medicinal purposes.   

Due to its form and structure, the most important meaning of the pomegranate fruit, is the adjustment of the diverse and multiple all in one unit.  In many cultures it symbolizes the unity of the universe and fertility.  

Jews celebrate the beginning of a new year in September and pomegranates are eaten in many houses; because of their abundant little juice filled sacs, they also represent the number of good deeds that a person must try to accomplish reflecting equally the number of wishes that may be granted. 
A favorite dish from Mexico: Chile en Nogada traditionally
embellished with pomegranate seeds most popularly served during the month of September.
In the month of September, pomegranates appear in one of the most impressive manifestations of the mexican culinary arts: the Chiles en Nogada.  The famous dish that consists of a stuffed grilled poblano chile, covered in a walnut sauce and adorned with pomegranate jewels that glisten like rubies.  The blanket of creamy and fragrant walnut sauce over the green chile with the little jewels, apart from being a delight to admire visually, announces the most patriotic month of the year in Mexico. 

In the Middle East, pomegranate juice is very popular sold streetside in thousands of stalls when in season.  In India, fresh seeds are used in preparation of a curd rice.  Prior to the arrival of the tomato in the Middle East, granadine, which is a thick red syrup made from the fruit is commonly used in a variety of persian foods.

Anardana, a spice which is made from drying the pomegranate seeds for 10 to 15 days is used in India and Pakistani cuisines.  Literally the word comes from (anar) seeds and (dana) in Persian.  The seeds are used as an acidic agent for a variety of chutneys and curries.