The Artful Pomegranate

Pomegranate painting 2
Painting by Elizabeth Floyd

Guarded treasure, honeycomb partitions,
Richness of flavour,
Pentagonal architecture.
The rind splits; seeds fall–
Crimson seeds in azure bowls,
Or drops of gold in dishes of enamelled bronze.

André Gide in Les Nourritures Terrestres (trans. Dorothy Bussy)

Like the pomegranate itself, so ripe and bursting with seeds, the history of this berry-like fruit reveals more and more the deeper one looks into it.

The myths, the legends, and the journeys of the pomegranate serve as an archetypal case of plant migration, illustrating how humans took a species and created variations of it.

Pomegranate madonna
Madonna of the Pomegranate, by Botticelli (1487)

Long associated with Christianity, the pomegranate represented fertility and faith. Artists painted pomegranates along with religious figures like the Virgin Mary and Christ.  In Spain, this seed-rich fruit inspired Queen Isabella, perhaps apocryphally, to say “Just like the pomegranate, I will take over Andalusia seed by seed.” The city name of Granada in Spain derives from the Latin for pomegranate and Granada’s coat of arms to this day contains a depiction of a pomegranate. The pomegranate appeared in California when Spanish Franciscan missionaries began planting orchards of pomegranates at the long string of missions up and down the coast.

Pomegranate Cezanne-GingerPot
Ginger Pot with Pomegranate and Pears, by Paul Cézanne

Take some of the names of pomegranate varieties currently grown in California:

Balegal, Cloud, Crab, Francis, Granada, King, Phoenicia (Fenecia), Wonderful …

Almost a poem, a haiku …

Appropriately, given the pomegranate’s association with fertility and its probable origins in Iran, my first encounter with the pomegranate took place at a spectacular wedding. My brother married into an Iranian family and one of the dishes featured in the vast repast prepared for that day was Khoresh-e Fessenjan, a rich Persian stew traditionally made with duck or pheasant and permeated with pomegranate syrup. (See my previous post —  “Iran: the Beauty of an Ancient Cuisine“)

Persian food 15
Photo credit: Chris Chen

Khoresh-e Fessenjan (Poultry in Pomegranate Sauce) (Adapted from Food of Life: A Book of Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies, by Najmieh Batmanglij)

6 servings

2 large onions, chopped, divided
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
¼ cup oil
2 cups walnuts, finely ground in a food processor
1 t. salt
¼ t. freshly ground black pepper
½ t. ground cinnamon
½ t. freshly ground nutmeg
1 cup fresh orange juice
2/3 cup pomegranate syrup or molasses
1 T. sugar
¼ t. saffron, dissolved in 1 T. hot water
1 large frying chicken, cut into serving pieces

Sauté half the onion in 3 T. of the oil in a large heavy pot. Add the walnuts and fry for 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Stir in salt, pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Cover with 1 ½ cup water.

Mix together the orange juice, pomegranate syrup, sugar, and saffron. Add this to the onion/walnut mixture. Cover, and simmer 20 minutes over low heat. Check taste and add more sugar if sauce is too sour.

Place chicken in another large pot with the remaining onion. Cover the pot and simmer for 30 minutes (1 hour if you use duck). DO NOT ADD WATER. Debone chicken when tender.

Add chicken to the pomegranate sauce mixture. Cook another 30 minutes. Stir occasionally, careful not to break up the chicken too much.

Check seasoning and place sauce/chicken in a covered casserole dish until serving. Serve with rice (chelo).

Note: You may use pomegranate juice as well. To make your own, just cut open the pomegranate like your would an orange or a grapefruit and squeeze out the juice or use a juicer.

Pomegranate cut openHow to Open a Pomegranate:

Pomegranates may seem intimidating, but they are easy to open. This efficient procedure for opening a pomegranate has six simple steps:
Cut – With a sharp paring knife, cut off the top about a half inch below the crown.
Score – Once the top has been removed, four to six sections of the pomegranate divided by white membrane will be visible. With the knife’s point, score the skin along each section.
Open – Using both hands, carefully pull the pomegranate apart, breaking it into smaller sections.
Loosen – Over a bowl of water, loosen the arils and allow them to drop freely into the bowl. The arils will sink to the bottom of the bowl and the membrane will float to the top.
Scoop – Use a spoon to scoop out the pieces of white membrane that have floated to the top of the water.
Strain – Pour the arils and remaining liquid through a strainer.

For more on cooking with pomegranates, see Pomegranates: 70 Celebratory Recipes, by Ann Kleinberg (2004). Another interesting source is  Pomegranates: Ancient Roots to Modern Medicine (Medicinal and Aromatic Plants – Industrial Profiles), by Navindra P. Seeram, Risa N. Schulman, and David Heber (CRC, 2006).

© 2009 C. Bertelsen



  • Thank you so much for this…one of my favorite dishes & I’ve never made it. (Always depended on Iranian friends. No longer…you’ve inspired me to make it, as I have all the ingredients right now.)

    I used to go to a restaurant/cafe near in DC called the Persian Tea Room (I think…long ago). Mostly for pastries & tea. But their version of this was really good & passed muster with Iranian friends. Don’t know about my version, but shall give it a go. I love your blog!



  • That sounds amazingly delicious! I love the combination of poultry or game with fruit, and I loved pomegranates long before people started touting the health benefits of them.

    Last weekend my neighbors had a birthday party for their son, and someone brought a fabulous salad involving herby greens, jicama, radishes, and pomegranate seeds. I went back for thirds.


  • I adore pomegranates. In my backyard growing up, we had a pomegranate tree and we would pick them in the autumn and enjoy biting the seeds, letting the juice spurt into our mouths. I was shocked at how many people didn’t know what a pomegranate was! I thought everyone had a tree in their back yard :)



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