[Punica granatum of family Lythraceae | Socotraan Pomegranate (Yemen); Punica protopunica]
The fruit of this shrub, native to Iran and eastern Turkey, has been in use since prehistoric times. In the Ancient World it had already spread throughout the Mediterranean region, North Africa, the Caucasus, and India. Around 700 CE it reached southern China and drier parts of Southeast Asia, with Spanish settlers bringing it to California and Latin America in 1769. It is now also cultivated in Arizona. Pomegranates failed to fruit in England, but were planted in the English colonies that are now the southeastern states of the United States. The smaller, less sweet P. protopunica grows only on the island of Socotra, Yemen, and is thought to be a remanent population of the precursor of P. granatum.
The spherical red fruits can range between 2 and 4-3/4 inches diameter and contain between 200 and 1400 seeds. The seeds are soft and can be chewed up while enjoying the sweet juice laden sarcotesta (swolen seed coat) that surrounds each seed. In Victorian England pomegranates were considered inedible except by children, because it was too much trouble to remove the seeds. No properly cultured Victorian would eat seeds! You couldn't just spit them out either, because nothing that went into the mouth could come out except fish bones.
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Pomegranates are very widely used through the Mediterranean region, including Turkey, the Levant and Egypt, and on through the Middle East into India. They are used to make the products listed below, and the juicy seeds are used whole as an ingredient in many dishes, and as a garnish. They are considered the national fruit of Armenia.
Buying: The fruit we get in Southern California is dark red when ripe, but different shades may be common in other countries. The best way to tell that a pomegranate is fully ripe on the tree is that it has started to split open. This is more risky for commercial pomegranates, as soundness depends on storage and shipment conditions - there should be no decay associated with the splitting, and if it has opened you should see unblemished red seeds inside.
Prep: The main problem is getting all those seeds out of the shell - the pulp and membranes are bitter. The general method is to cut off the flower end, being careful not to cut into the seed chambers, and scoring the rind from stem end to flower end into quarters. At this point some people put the pomegranate into a bowl of cold water for 15 minutes or so, then break it up and seed it under water, because the seeds sink and the pulp and membranes float. I don't bother with the water and have little trouble breaking them up and seeding them dry. Another way is to slice the pomegranate crosswise in the middle, then holding it cut side down over a bowl, whack the rind with a heavy spoon until most of the seeds have fallen out, then pull out any shards of membrane.
Dried pomegranate seeds are a common seasoning in Iran and the northern reaches of India. In the Caucasus and the Levant they are used less, but are used where liquid Pomegranate Molasses would not work, or a crunchy texture is desired. The best are from wild pomegranate shrubs that produce small, sour fruit. The photo shows dried seeds from my pomegranate shrub, which produces small sour fruit. Anardana includes the formerly juicy sarcotesta, so it should be soft, a bit sticky, and distinctly reddish. Much sold in North America is badly overdried, hard and inferior - better to use lemon juice.
This seasoning is used sparingly. In India, the seeds are usually
roasted until crisp and aromatic, and then ground to various textures.
In India, this seasoning is used mainly to liven up vegetable and dal
dishes, and in chutneys. In the Levant, ground seeds are often
sprinkled over humus and salads. In a tightly sealed container stored
away from light and heat, this condiment lasts about a year. It is also
sold ground, but is much more perishable that way.
This wine is popular in Armenia, and that I've found in Southern
California is mostly from Armenia, but what would you expect when
Glendale is the "Western Capital of Armenia"? It is usually a semi-sweet
wine bottled at about 12% alcohol. The wine is both fascinating and
delicious. I recommend these as dessert wines for folks who,
like myself, don't like overly sweet wines. Pomegranate wine
is also made in California, of course - we grow tons of pomegranates
(mostly variety Wonderful), have lots of highly experienced
wineries, and a plentiful supply of Armenians as well. Examples I have
encountered were about 13% alcohol, with varieties both drier and
sweeter than the typical Armenian wines - and sparkling wines too.
Anything that can be yeast fermented into wine or beer can be further
fermented by bacteria into vinegar, with residual flavor of the wine or
beer it is made from. This holds also for pomegranate wine, but you will
be hard pressed to find a real pomegranate vinegar. They are pretty much
all grape wine vinegars flavored with pomegranate. Trader Joe's (photo)
is typical, starting with white wine vinegar at 10% acidity and adding
water and pomegranate juice concentrate to bring it down around 4%.
The result is a somewhat sweet vinegar with definite pomegranate flavor.
It could be a good vinegar for salads, particularly salads with fruit.
[Pomegranate Syrup] This is an essential ingredient from Greece
through the Middle East, the Caucasus, Turkey and Iran, as well as parts
of North Africa. There are a number of brands sold here in Southern
California, but most have sugar or corn syrup as the main ingredient.
The photo specimen is from Lebanon, with ingredients: Pomegranate
Molasses, Sugar Syrup. Yes, there is sugar, but at least pomegranate is
the primary ingredient. This syrup is made from relatively sour varieties
of pomegranate, so it is fairly tart, even with the sugar.
This juice has been very much in the health news for its very high and unique antioxidant content. Preliminary results show it may have significant health benefits, particularly for heart health, but more extensive studies are needed. The major downside is the amount of sugars, which can be as much as 1 teaspoon sugar per ounce of juice. Pomegranates are roughly 6.5% fructose, 6.1% dextrose, 0.4% sucrose and a trace of maltose (studies vary in exact percentages). Unfortunately, I don't know if these percentages are calculated with or without the brown seeds. Counter to food industry claims that "all sugars are the same", current research finds fructose is metabolized differently, and is more dangerous than other sugars.
Pomegranate juice lacks any fiber and, while pomegranates are high in
vitamin C, there is none in bottled pomegranate juice, as it is
destroyed by pasteurization. Also destroyed are some of the polyphenol
antioxidants present in raw pomegranates. Caution:
many beverages featuring "pomegranate" on the label are blends, with
cheaper juices outweighing pomegranate. Citric or malic acid and even
sugar are commonly added to cover up a weak flavor. Select only brands
that list "100% Pomegranate Juice".
The peels are hard, bitter and inedible, but they contain as much as
three times the antioxidants and other desirable substances as the
seed pulp. These substances are extracted for use in dietary supplements
and natural food preservatives.