This piece was originally published in the Moment’s September/October 2009 issue.
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 saying the opening prayers, we nibbled from a bowl of ga’le, a fruit-and-nut combination of grapes, pomegranates, pecans, walnuts, roasted peanuts and beans as the first course. When the meal was over, the rabbi sat back to rest a little and said, “Blessed be His Name. We have always eaten little, but well, of what God has given us.” Then we each savored a few seeds of a fresh pomegranate, enjoying the beautiful bright color and sweet, yet tangy, flavor.
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 Egyptian, has become a source of confusion in recent years, as the round shape of the fruit lends itself to a less sweet purpose—a hand grenade in the Israeli army is called a rimon yad, or hand pomegranate.
Biblically, it is significant as the first fruit of the season, but also because it appears often throughout texts as a symbol of abundance, knowledge, fertility and peace. It also may have made a very early appearance in Genesis: Scholars differ on the actual fruit species of the “apple” of the Garden of Eden—some say that it might have been a fig or grapes or an apricot or a quince, or the “seedy apple,” the pomegranate. The perfect pomegranate is mentioned as one with 613 seeds—the same number as that of mitzvot in the Torah.
Pomegranate designs were embroidered on the hems of the robes of the high priests of the Temple and adorned the capitals of the two pillars of King Solomon’s temple (Kings 7:13-22). Coins from Ancient Judea dating from the second century BCE depicted a pomegranate on one side—perhaps in reference to the pomegranate being a symbol of wealth and plenty—and in 2007, the Israeli two-shekel coin was graced with the same image.
Of course, pomegranates are best loved as a drink and as food. Their arils (the fleshy, tasty covering of the seed) are a special treat, eaten raw or dried like raisins, pressed to produce juice, mixed into wine or sprinkled on roasted meats. Over time, pomegranates made their way into cooking. Their juices were boiled down to make syrup or pomegranate honey, and the seeds were used to stuff meat cutlets or dot rice dishes. One of my favorites is the Persian dish fesenjan (see recipe), a stew with poultry, pomegranates and walnuts, that I tasted in Jerusalem and then at the home of Persian Jewish immigrants in Los Angeles.
Another classic Persian treatment of the pomegranate is to turn the hard-shelled fruit into a natural juice box. I remember my children’s delight when a Persian family taught us the technique of drinking the juice straight from the hard shell. They rolled a pomegranate along a countertop until all the crunchy sounds stopped, then pierced it with a skewer, inserted a straw into the hole and drank. Now sold as a drink in fruit stands in cities from Tehran to Berlin to Jerusalem, this reminds me of the verse from Song of Songs 8:2: “I would cause thee to drink of spiced wine of the juice of my pomegranates….”
Since the fruit can stay fresh for months with no refrigeration, the pomegranate was a perfect item for trade. Merchants traveling from the Middle East to Europe as early as the eighth century probably brought the fruit with them. My mother-in-law would talk about the pomegranates her family would get from Iran for Rosh Hashanah when she was a little girl growing up in Poland. They would eat them raw, savoring each precious seed, since, at best, they would see the fruit only once a year.
For centuries the pomegranate was quietly revered by those who lived in places where the fruit grew plentifully. Jews of the Middle East, Ashkenazi and Sephardic alike, mainly used it to make syrup. But about the time of the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979, the pomegranate was rediscovered in the West. When immigrants fleeing the Iranian Revolution came to the U.S., they brought with them a longing for the foods of their homeland. Jewish entrepreneurs, like the Soofer family who came from Tehran to Los Angeles, carried seeds with them, helping the pomegranate gain a foothold here. Today Soofer Co. Inc., with its Sadaf brand, has become a large importer and distributor of kosher Iranian foods, including pomegranate syrup.
In 1986 another Iranian immigrant, Najmieh Batmanglij, published her first cookbook, The Food of Life, which featured a large pomegranate on the cover. This book is filled with recipes for pomegranate syrups, sauces and stews. It is a staple text in Iranian and Iranian Jewish communities in the United States, demonstrating traditional cooking techniques that current generations have forgotten or never learned.
Pomegranates are also now plentiful in most American supermarkets, generally from October to the beginning of January. Much of that is thanks to Lynda and Stewart Resnick, the owners of Pom Wonderful and the largest growers of pomegranates in the United States. In the late 1980s the Resnicks acquired land in southern California’s San Joaquin Valley that had a few pomegranate trees on it. As they learned more about the mythology and the health benefits of the red plump fruit, their interest grew. They have sponsored studies that have found that the juice of the pomegranate, a rich source of vitamins C and B, helps prevent heart disease and atherosclerosis and is thought to reduce dental plaque and lower the risk of prostate cancer.
These findings, and the public relations campaign that came with them, coincided with a new emphasis on the benefits of healthy eating and natural remedies. Lynda Resnick, who eats a bowl of pomegranate arils every day for breakfast, told me, “We’re doing God’s work. And we’re helping people clean out their arteries.” Every year at Rosh Hashanah, I keep a large bowl of plump, red pomegranates at the center of my holiday table, just as the late Rabbi Zadok once did. We eat them raw and drink their juice. For me, they’re both a remembrance of the Yemenite meal I had so long ago and a hope for peace, fruitfulness and prosperity for the New Year. As we relish each aril, I think of the Rosh Hashanah prayer, “In the coming year may we be rich and replete with acts inspired by religion and piety as the pomegranate is rich and replete with seeds.”
Sweet and sour chicken, pomegranate and walnut stew
Adapted from The New American Cooking, by Joan Nathan
1 medium onion, chopped
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
10 chicken thighs, w ith the bone, skin and fat rem oved
1 pound walnuts, finely chopped in a food processor
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon fresh lem on juice
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons ketchup
1/3 cup pomegranate juice concentrate o r syrup
Sm all pinch o f saffron
4 cups water
1. Saute the onions in the olive oil in a medium pot until light golden brown. Add the chicken, walnuts, salt, lem on juice, sugar, ketchup, pomegranate concentrate, saffron and water. The chicken pieces do no t have to be in one layer just as long as they are covered with sauce.
2. Bring everything to a boil, then reduce the heat and cover the pot loosely. Cook for an hour at a slow and constant simmer, stirring occasionally. Serve over white rice. 6 -8 servings