Poetic Pomegranates

Nothing like a Rumi poem about pomegranates to sum up what is hip in

Pomegranate in Progress

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.

http://www.scribd.com/doc/99616690/Lamb-with-Pomegranate-and-Saffron-when-a-great-book-inspires-great-cooking
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:
suns exist.

The heart guides you to the neighborhood of the
saints;
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

A Recipe From the Night Counter: Foul Medamos

In The Night Counter, Laila goes to the Arabic grocery in Detroit and decides for the first time in her marriage not to buy the ingredients to make her Egyptian husband foul.
Whether you write it out from Arabic as “foul” or “fool,” I’ll grant you that it doesn’t sound very appetizing in English.  But foul medamos is actually a staple of much of the Middle East, particularly Egypt, and an appreciated breakfast or late night dinner served up with hot pita.  Also know as “people’s food” because of its affordability, foul can be made so many different ways.  The only absolutely necessary ingredient that Laila or anyone else making foul would definitely need is the foul itself, which is dried fava beans that have been boiled until soft.  (Fava beans are also a key ingredient of another “people’s food”: falafel)

Many shops in the Middle East ladle up the steaming hot beans in a bowl and let you decide how to dress them—lemon juice and olive oil are a given, as is garlic usually.  But from there, you can go a lot of different ways—some like to mix it up with green chilis, others like to stir in chickpeas, still others prefer a swirl of tahini or to scoop it up with raw onions, some like it warm, some like it hot.  Here’s the way I imagine Laila would make it.

Foul Medamos

Foul Medamos from The Night Counter

Foul Medamos from The Night Counter

1 16-oz can fava beans, drained and rinsed
1 small red bell pepper, finely diced
1 small green bell pepper, finely diced
1 bunch of green onions, sliced
1 Persian-style cucumber, seeded and diced (optional)
¼ c. of chopped flat leaf parsley
Juice of two lemons
6 T. olive oil
1 clove garlic, crushed.
1t ground cumin
¼ t. red pepper –or to taste
Salt to taste

Wisk together the lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, cumin, red pepper and salt into a dressing.  Add the fava beans, peppers, onions, and cucumber.  Mix together gently so that the beans don’t  fall apart.  Add in the parsley.  Serve at room temperature or chilled, but allow at least half an hour for flavors to mix.

I marked the cucumber as optional, but really it’s all optional.  In fact, I think I’ve been known to make the same thing but using black beans and corn instead of the fava beans and calling it a Mexican salad.  Of course, that brings me to my theory of the continents being connected once via the similarity in recipes that seem to be so dominant in both Egypt and Mexico.  Of course, war, occupation and conquistadors could also explain that away.  But I digress.