The pomegranate originated in the region around Persia and northern India, and has been cultivated for thousands of years. It spread into China, and the Mediterranean as early as the Bronze age; and from the Persians to the Arabs in the flowering of Islam in the Medieval period. It features prominently in the cuisines of Iran and around the Caspian Sea — especially in the use of the concentrated juice to add sourness to food. The dried seeds are used in Indian cooking as well. The brilliant, jewel-like fresh seeds are also perfect garnishes for meat and fruit dishes.
The concentrate of pomegranate juice is probably the most common use for cooking. It’s tart, a little bit astringent, and sweet. Pomegranate molasses is almost the same as concentrate, but is cooked a little longer. It is readily available in Persian or Greek shops, or online. Both Cortas and Sadaf brands are particularly good.
If you need to, you can make your own with nothing more than unsweetened (or sweetened) pomegranate juice. From “Olive Trees and Honey” — In a small saucepan, boil [2 cups of] pomegranate juice over medium heat, stirring occasionally until reduced to about 1/2 cup, about 1 hour.
It’s an essential ingredient in dishes like muhammara, and Persian stews. It’s great drizzled on food as a sauce, or in glazes for kebabs or barbecue. The cookbook “Food of Life” by Nadia Batmanglij has a lot of pomegranate recipes. Incidentally, this is one of the most well-used cookbooks in the Normandie Kitchen.
The fruit itself is a little bit of a pain to clean, but there are online videos to guide you. You need to be careful to remove the white membrane on the inside, because it’s very astringent. According to Batmanglij, you just cut the pomegranate in half, and holding with the cut side over a bowl, bang the crap out of it with a wooden spoon until all the seeds fall out, like magic.
This method more or less works. But never as well as promised. You’ll always get juice all over yourself, and the entire room, as well as any people near by. Sorry, not sorry.
The name pomegranate comes from Latin for “seeded apple” (the word granum for seed also gives us the word grain). The pomegranate is mentioned throughout ancient culture. Persephone ate pomegranate seeds while trapped in the underworld, dooming her to spend half the year with Hades. It figures as a decorative motif in the Israelite temple. It spread along the Silk Road into China and as far as Japan. The word for “grenade” apparently comes from the resemblance of the bomb to the fruit.
The pomegranate, Punica granatum is pretty much the only edible plant in its family, Lythraceae (which also contains the ornamental, but useless, crape myrtle). Technically the fruit is a berry (note that cucumbers, bananas, and chilis are also berries).
The pomegranate grows readily in a Mediterranean climate, to the size of a fairly respectable tree — though you can keep it as a smallish shrub. It can take a little frost. It pretty much, in our experience, requires no special care. It’s easiest to propagate pomegranates from cuttings, in late winter. When the fruit splits open, it’s definitely ripe, and you’ll probably have to fight the birds for it.