But this timeless fruit has only just recently become a sensation in the United States. That's mostly thanks to an abundance of pomegranate juices, glazes, syrups and seeds now available year- round. The first seven months of 2006 brought 215 new food and beverage products with pomegranate, while 2005 brought 258 new products, according to a company called ProductScan.
Americans are devouring pomegranate products not only for their unique sweettart taste, but also for the fruit's highly-touted health benefits, particularly the antioxidants that are found in deeply colorful foods.
Pomegranates as a popular edible can be traced to biblical times, according to Robert M. Downs, owner of R. Downs Nutrition Center.
"Historically, pomegranates were an extremely popular food item, along with grapes, figs and olives," says Downs, a clinical nutritionist who occasionally gives lectures on biblical nutrition.
How does it taste?
"Sweet & tart -- it's both," says Sharon Levin, owner of the catering company Gourmet to Go, as well as manager of the Gourmet to Go Deli at the Jewish Community Center. "I use it in Middle Eastern and Arabic dishes."
"An empty tartness," says Charles Hartman, a crew member at Trader Joe's, describing the lack of an aftertaste when he drinks from a bottle of pomegranate juice.
"Pleasantly red," says Downs.
You'll generally find pomegranates in the grocery stores starting in September and going into winter. The edible portion of a pomegranate is packed inside the fruit's leathery skin. Hundreds of gemlike arils entwined in a pithy membrane pack juice and seeds. When eaten fresh, the seeds can be swallowed or spit out after enjoying the juice. When purchased as a glaze, molasses or syrup, the seeds and juice are all part of the mix.
You can find pomegranate products ranging from juices to teas locally in stores such as Trader Joe's, Whole Foods or even Wal- Mart. Some juice drinks are mixed with other juices for tasteful blends of pomegranate, blueberry, tangerine, mango, elderberry or sweet cherry.
You can find specialized products such as pomegranate molasses and syrups at international markets and specialty stores.
The Pomegranate Council (pomegranates.org), which represents growers in California's fertile San Joaquin Valley, offers dozens of recipes for using pomegranate products in appetizers (pomegranate yogurt dip) to main courses (pomegranate honey-roasted game hens) to desserts (pomegranate parfait).
So, too, does Pom Wonderful, which claims to be the largest California grower of the Wonderful variety and which recently published "Pomegranate Passion," a coffeetable book of recipes and tips for preparing pomegranates (pomwonderful.com).
Seeds of change
Pomegranates are versatile, indeed. Fresh seeds can be sprinkled over salads and fruit desserts. The glazes or sauces can be used as a marinade or atop waffles, oatmeal or sundaes.
Traditional Middle Eastern lamb kebabs use a pomegranate glaze. Pomegranates can be used in relishes, dips, even liquors. Grenadine syrup, used in mixing cocktails, is thickened and sweetened pomegranate juice.
Health experts have long touted the pomegranate's medical benefits. The fruit is high in polyphenols, considered an antioxidant or a "scavenger" that neutralizes free radicals within the body before they get a chance to cause harm. Pomegranates are also rich in folic acid and vitamin C.
"Pomegranate juice -- like other dark-pigmented juices such as cranberry or blueberry -- have chemicals with antioxidant value to the human body," says Downs. "There are no miracles here. It's just good food as created from the beginning of recorded history."
Downs has accumulated additional clinical trials research that suggests some of the chemicals in pomegranates may also be effective in reducing certain heart risk factors, retinal hemorrhaging and chronic age-related diseases such as atherosclerosis.
"Don't get the diluted and sweetened juices," advises Downs. "You want 100 percent real, pure stuff without all the other things added to dilute the impact."
One medium size pomegranate yields about 3/4 cup of seeds or a half cup of juice. According to Dr. Richter's Fresh Produce Guide at Whole Foods, a medium pomegranate has 105 calories, 1 gram of protein, 1 gram of fat and 27 grams of carbohydrates.
Mohammad Tafti, owner of Pars Cuisine, a restaurant specializing in Persian food, reminisces fondly about the abundance of pomegranates in his native Iran, where as a boy he would eat up to 10 per day when the fruit was in season. His parents dried pomegranate seeds across the rooftop to use as a culinary spice and made their own sauce from the juices.
"I still eat a lot of pomegranates," he says. "We buy by the case."
Today, one of the most popular dishes in his restaurant is Fesenjoon, a rice and chicken dish mixed with pomegranate sauce that has been sweetened with walnuts and sugar.
"Americans like it because it's sweet and sour," Tafti says.
The pomegranate, about the same size as an apple, is also the fruit of legends.
Greek mythology tells the story of Persephone, whom Hades kidnapped and took to live in the underworld as his wife. Because she consumed a few seeds of a pomegranate that grew in the realm of the dead, Persephone was condemned to spend six months every year at Hades' side, a time when her mother, Demeter, mourns. Because Demeter was the goddess of agriculture and fertility, when she mourns, winter settles over the earth.
GRILLED POMEGRANATE CHICKEN
- 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
- 1/2 cup pomegranate molasses
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 teaspoon dried ginger Pinch (or to taste) allspice
Combine marinade ingredients. Combine with chicken breasts, coating the meat well. Refrigerate for two to three hours. Reserve the marinade and use as a basting sauce while grilling the chicken.
POMEGRANATE RICE PILAF
- 1 prepackaged mix of wild/long grained rice pilaf
- 2 teaspoons olive oil
- 1 1/3 cup water or chicken stock
- 1/8 to 1/4 cup of pomegranate molasses (depending on preferred sweetness level)
- 2 teaspooons butter
- 2 tablespoons toasted chopped walnuts
- 2 tablespoons Craisins (dried cranberries)
From the prepackaged rice mix, measure out one cup of the rice. Toast the rice with olive oil in pan over stove burner until lightly brown. Add the water or chicken stock, the pomegranate molasses and butter to the rice mixture. Bring rice mixture to a boil, cover and simmer until the rice is tender. When rice cools slightly, add the toasted, chopped walnuts and dried cranberries.