Nothing like a Rumi poem about pomegranates to sum up what is hip in
literature and food circles today. Both these Middle Eastern imports—Rumi and pomegranates– have gone from near obscurity to near cliché levels in Western cultural hotspots over the past few years. Yet another reason for the pomegranate to laugh in Rumi’s poem.
I remember my first pomegranate. I was seven, late in life for a Middle Easterner to be introduced to all its wonder. But we were living in Minnesota then, and the even the mango had yet barely made an appearance. One Saturday, my father beheld, much to his surprise and delight, a small pomegranate resting amidst the fake grass in the produce section at Byerly’s. Byerly’s was the far away luxury supermarket we occasionally took a road trip to in the hopes finding just such a food memento. Byerly’s had already given us whole dates and a few inches of sugar cane and a coconut. I liked the store mostly because it was where Mary shopped in the opening credits to Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Back in our kitchen, our father warned us to stand back as he broke open the pomegranate, carefully chasing any of the precious luminescent red drops that escaped. My brother and I chomped on the sweet seeds, smiling while trying not to let the juice burst out our mouths as my mother hovered around us with a box of Kleenex at the ready, fearing that we would permanently splatter our shirts crimson. Indeed, the pomegranate leaves its mark on our clothes and fingers and souls. This is why it appears in Middle Eastern poems, books, and films, like Najwa Najjar’s award winning Pomegranates and Myrrh.
Every trendy restaurant in London and Los Angeles seems to have found a place for pomegranate on the menu, particularly using the lush, goopy, sour pomegranate molasses. American cuisine is innovative and evolving—always the anticipation of a new taste sensation replacing the old, just like a new TV season. We look back at wheat germ and pineapple upside down cake the way we look back Mayberry RFD. Middle Eastern cuisine is based on centuries of tradition, the comfort of savoring the expected, plus or minus this ingredient or that ingredient. That includes plus or minus the pomegranate: as the primary dressing ingredient in Lebanese fattoush, as a broth in which kibbe is simmered in Aleppo, Syria, as a topping for baba ghanoush in Jordan. However, much like Rumi is to Iranian (or Persian) poetry, the pomegranate is to Iranian (or Persian) cuisine. Iranians seem to be able to successfully stew just about anything in it. I love this recipe from my friend Anita Amirrezvani, inspired by her new critically-acclaimed novel Equal of the Sun.
Question to ponder: Did the Arabic word for pomegranates (ruman) derive from Rumi’s name, as that is where the pomegranate came from?
THE LAUGHTER OF POMEGRANATES:
If you buy a pomegranate,
buy one whose ripeness
has caused it to be cleft open
with a seed-revealing smile.
Its laughter is a blessing,
for through its wide-open mouth
it shows its heart,
like a pearl in the jewel box of spirit.
The red anemone laughs, too,
but through its mouth you glimpse a blackness.
A laughing pomegranate
brings the whole garden to life.
Keeping the company of the holy
makes you one of them
Whether you are stone or marble,
you will become a jewel
when you reach a human being of heart.
Plant the love of the holy ones within your spirit;
don’t give your heart to anything
but the love of those whose hearts are glad.
Don’t go to the neighborhood of despair:
there is hope.
Don’t go in the direction of darkness:
The heart guides you to the neighborhood of the
the body takes you to the prison of water and earth.
Give your heart the food of holy friends;
seek maturity from those who have matured.
~ Mawlana Jalal-al-Din Rumi