(photo by Noa Fisher via PikiWiki-Israel)
Pomegranates are referred to in the Bible in many various ways. In the sensual poetry of Song of Songs, we read, “I went down into the garden of nuts … to see whether the vine budded and the pomegranates were in flower.” In another passage, the poet writes, “I would cause thee to drink of spiced wine, of the juice of my pomegranate.” Song of Songs has four additional mentions of pomegranates, and there are also references in Joel, Haggai and I Kings.
For many Jews, pomegranates are traditional for Rosh Hashanah. Some believe the dull and leathery skinned, crimson fruit may have really been the tapuach, apple, of the Garden of Eden. According to Forward “Food Maven” Matthew Goodman, the pomegranate originated in Persia and is one of the world’s oldest cultivated fruits, having been domesticated around 4000 BCE. The Egyptians imported pomegranates from the Holy Land in 1150 BCE and natural pomegranate juice, made into spiced wine, was a favourite of Hebrews living in Egypt. Pomegranate wood could also be carved into skewers on which to roast the lamb for Passover.
The word pomegranate means “grained apple.” In Hebrew, it is called rimon, which is also the word for hand grenade! In fact, the English term “hand grenade” is said to come from this and that both the town of Granada in Spain and the stone garnet come from the name and colour of the pomegranate. The juice can also be made into grenadine.
The Hebrews yearned for the pomegranates they left behind in Egypt while wandering in the desert – “And wherefore have ye made us to come up out of Egypt, to bring us in unto this evil place? It is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates.” (Numbers 20:5) And the spies reported their findings in Canaan to Moses: “And they came unto the valley Eshkol and cut down from thence a branch with one cluster of grapes, and they bore it upon a pole between two; they took also of the pomegranates and of the figs.” (Numbers 13:23)
Pomegranates were also used on the faces of the shekel in the second century BCE. King Solomon had an orchard of pomegranates, and pomegranates of brass were part of the pillars of his great Temple in Jerusalem. Throughout the Bible, pomegranates are referred to as a symbol of fertility. As well, in the Jewish mystical tradition of kabbalah, it is said there are 613 seeds in each pomegranate, equaling the number of mitzvot commanded by God.
On the second night of Rosh Hashanah, when it is customary to eat a “new” fruit, one that celebrants have not eaten during the year, many Sephardi Jews choose the pomegranate. They recite the prayer “ken yehi ratzon, may it be thy will, O Creator, that our year be rich and replete with blessings, as the pomegranate is rich and replete with seeds.”
In modern days, a study at the Technion in Haifa a few years ago showed the power of the fruit. The cholesterol oxidation process, which creates lesions that narrow arteries and result in heart disease, was slowed by as much as 40% when subjects drank two to three ounces of pomegranate juice a day for two weeks. The juice reduced the retention of LDL, the “bad” cholesterol that aggregates and forms lesions. When subjects stopped drinking the juice, the beneficial effects lasted about a month. Other studies have shown that pomegranates fight inflammation and cancer, and slow cellular aging. Pomegranates are a good source of potassium, low in calories and low in sodium.
When choosing a pomegranate, look for one that is large, brightly coloured and has a shiny skin. You should store a pomegranate in a plastic bag in the refrigerator, and it can keep up to 10 weeks. To open a pomegranate, score the outside skin into four pieces, then break the fruit apart with your hands following the divisions of the membranes. Pull off the membranes then scrape the seeds into your mouth or lift them out with a spoon. Here are some recipes for those seeds.
1/3 cup white sugar
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1/8 tsp nutmeg
1/8 tsp allspice
- Puree seeds from pomegranates in blender or food processor and strain. Place in saucepan.
- Add white sugar, brown sugar and cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer about 10 minutes. Add nutmeg and allspice and cook one minute.
- Remove from heat, discard cinnamon stick and strain.
BAKED APPLES IN POMEGRANATE SYRUP
4 slightly tart apples
1 halved pomegranate
1/3 cup preserves of your choice
1/2 tsp cinnamon
- Cut each apple into four wedges. Place in microwavable dish.
- Squeeze juice from half the pomegranate into a measuring cup. Add enough apple juice to make half a cup. Add preserves and cinnamon and mix well. Pour over apples to coat them.
- Cover with plastic wrap and microwave for two minutes. Stir and microwave two more minutes. Place apple wedges in serving dishes.
- Remove seeds from other half of pomegranate and garnish apples.
POMEGRANATE FRUIT SOUFFLE
1 cup + 3 tbsp confectioners’ sugar
1 tbsp unflavoured gelatin
1/2 cup hot water
1/2 cup cold water
7 tbsp orange juice
2 1/2 tbsp lemon juice
pulp and seeds of 6 pomegranates
- Place yolks and sugar in a saucepan over a second saucepan filled with water (double boiler-style). Cook, stirring, until thick and creamy.
- Dissolve gelatin in a bowl of hot water. Then stir in cold water.
- Add orange juice, lemon juice, pomegranate pulp and seeds and mix.
- Add juice mixture to egg yolk mixture.
- Beat egg whites until stiff. Fold into pomegranate mixture. Pour into a soufflé dish or casserole with height built up of three to four inches with a double thickness of wax paper or aluminum foil, stapled or held in place with a paper clip.
- Chill in refrigerator until set. Remove band of paper. Decorate with whipped cream.
Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, lecturer, book reviewer and food writer in Jerusalem. She created and leads the weekly English-language Shuk Walks in Machane Yehuda, she has compiled and edited nine kosher cookbooks, and is the author of Witness to History: Ten Years as a Woman Journalist in Israel.