Let’s talk about pomegranates

Today we delve into the world of the pomegranate. In many languages, the word for this fruit also contains the word for “an apple,” for example in German (Granatapfel) and Italian (melograno). It is also less obviously referenced this way in many cases, for example, the English name; the beginning of the word (pome) is a distorted version of the French word for apple! Despite many languages linking this fruit with apples, they are not all that closely related, being in entirely different families. Cherries, plums, or even the beautiful roses in your grandmother’s garden all have more in common with an apple than a pomegranate does! As for the second part of the name (granate), some may think it sounds similar to the word for a military explosive weapon, a grenade. The weapon is actually named after the fruit since it contains many small grains inside is similar to the seeds of a pomegranate. This part of the name is also traceable back to Latin, where “granatum” means granular. This plant is in the botanical family Lythraceae, which means it is a close relative of true loosestrifes as well as henna, a plant well known for its use in dying.

Pomegranates are thought to be among the first domesticated fruits, having been cultivated for the past 7000 years. This plant originated around Iran, where it then further spread across Asia and northern India. Dried pomegranate fruits have even been found in Egyptian tombs dating back almost 4 thousand years. In Iranian cuisine, the fleshy seeds or its juice were used to season dishes, given them a characteristic aroma and taste; this tradition continues into the present day, with pomegranate now being consumed around the world. It is so popular in parts of Spain that it is even incorporated into the coat of arms for the city of Granada, which shares its name with the Spanish word for this fruit. In Central and Northern Europe, however, the fruit has only come to be widely known within the last century.

Anatomy of the fruit

Pomegranates are the fruits of small trees (up to 10 m) with thorny branches. Though many are familiar with the fruit of this tree, it also has brilliant red blossoms, and is thus often used as an ornamental tree. It is also cultivated as a bonsai in Japan.

The outside of the fruit is (admittedly) not very tempting. With its hard, dry, and almost leathery skin, it is not something that invites you to bite into it. But once pulled apart, the juicy red seeds appear, and here the delicacy lies. When examined anatomically, the pomegranate is quite special. Using standard terms like fruit, berry, and seed does not get us very far with this plant. We’ll compare it to an apple here to clear things up a bit. The outermost layer (exocarp) is the skin of the apple, which gives different apple varieties their distinctive colors. In the case of the pomegranate, this part is thicker and harder than in apples, almost woody (indeed, when they dry and split on the tree, they are quite woody!). The next layer in (mesocarp) is the most important in apples; it is a few centimeters thick and is composed of sweet, juicy flesh. For pomegranates, this layer is also soft, but only a few millimeters thick, as well as being dry and bitter. The next part of the apple is the thin, hard shells around the core that sometimes get stuck in our teeth when we bite deeply into it. This layer (endocarp) is almost the same as the mesocarp in pomegranates, being white, soft, dry, and bitter; this is seen as the membranes surrounding the seeds. In the case of the apple, we are not interested in eating any deeper, but there you will see the seeds with a dark, and the hard seed coat, which protects a softer white portion inside the seed. In the case of the pomegranate, the casing around the seed is the best part! The juicy red grains in pomegranates are the seeds, with the outer layer being called the sarcotest. The prefix sarco- in Latin means “fleshy,” so this refers to the fleshiness of the seed coat. The innermost part of the seed is white and slightly harder.

The complex anatomy of this fruit is also something that we see reflected in the professional literature; there is often a range of words used to describe these seeds, such as grains, while the seed is often used to refer only to the inner white portion. The pomegranate seeds (the white core with the red, fleshy coating) thus make up about 50% of the weight of a pomegranate. Good thing apples aren’t like this!

Pomegranates as food

This fruit has been becoming increasingly popular due to its many health benefits. The seeds are about 85% water, and contain many polyphenols, such as ellagic and gallic acid, which give it its sour and astringent taste as well as its strong antioxidant activity. Pomegranate juice is a source of vitamin C, with 100 ml covering 16% of our daily requirements for this vitamin. It is also rich in vitamins K and B complex (especially B9, otherwise known as folic acid). The white interior parts of the seeds are rich in oils and plant sterols. 

Pomegranate seeds can be eaten on their own, used in salads, added to desserts, or added to the main dish. Though it is a fruit, it is often used in savory dishes. Here at Hungry Pumpkin, we have used it in this way, having put it on top of cooked millet and vegetables (HERE). Pomegranate juice is very popular, especially since it saves us from having to go through the work of opening up the pomegranate, which can be messy and time-consuming (although a quick google search for “correct way to open a pomegranate” will give you a thousand different ways to do this!). In various Asian culinary traditions (Indian, Persian, Turkish), the juice is used as a salad dressing and as a side dish. Dried seeds are used in a similar way. Grenadine syrup is also named after the pomegranate because it was originally made from this fruit, though today it is mostly made from other berries and artificial flavors. 

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