Pomegranates in Turkish Art + Gastronomy
Mother Tongue and Hasat
It is estimated that the pomegranate was introduced to our culture 5000 years ago. Its nutritional, therapeutic, and ornamental values, however, have been known to humans since antiquity.¹ In the second part of our collaboration with Mother Tongue, we are taking pomegranates as a starting point to explore the connection between food and art - in Turkey and beyond.
Records of pomegranate tree cultivation date back to Ancient Sumerians, indicating that pomegranates originated in Central Asia, specifically in the Anatolian peninsula and modern-day Iran.² Unsurprisingly, the presence of the crop is strongly tied to the identity of Central Asian cultures and plays a vital role in Persian and Greek mythology, Buddhism, and Abrahamic religions, which are strongly associated with the region.
This sturdy and resistant plant grows in traditionally unfavorable conditions, blossoming across Eurasia, Northern Africa, eventually spreading across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas.¹ The Ottoman Empire stretched from Central Asia to the Middle East, both of which are regions where the pomegranate natively grows. Consequently, the empire inherited and contributed to the importance of the pomegranate in medicine, food, and art.¹
The Ottoman Palace kitchens were successfully secretive about their recipes. Despite this, records of shopping lists, banquet descriptions, paintings, medical books, and poetry give us a solid idea of food consumed during the six centuries of Ottoman rule. For instance, we know that pomegranates feature in and outside of the kitchen; their seeds used for cooking while their leaves, bark, and pith reserved for medicinal remedies.³ We see records from 1539 detail an almond soup brightened by vivid pomegranate seeds, and a century later, pomegranates are still favored on plates, this time in molasses form, adding zest to a liver dish.
Pomegranates are harvested in the Aegean, Mediterranean, and Southeastern Anatolia region of Turkey, then shipped domestically and internationally. Many consumers squeeze the fruit to make fresh juice, sprinkle the seeds over desserts like aşure (see photo on right), or incorporate the fruit into salads. The fruit can be a little tricky to open and extract the juicy seeds. To see our favorite way to open a pomegranate, see the video below.
The most popular form of consumption in Turkish food is pomegranate syrup which is similar to balsamic vinegar reduction. Sauces, dressings, and marinades for many classic Turkish dishes such as çiğköfte or kısır use pomegranate molasses to provide a sweet and sour flavor. A specific variation of the pomegranate called the hicaz is harvested, juiced, and boiled down to make a tangy and thick syrup. The culinary use of pomegranate syrup likely originated in Ottoman palace kitchens but is not currently bound to Turkish borders. Pomegranate syrup is also present in the cuisine of Israel, Palestine, Iran, Armenia, and other Central Asian and Middle Eastern countries.
Fruits are not only a tasteful food source with health benefits but also an indispensable part of socio-cultural life. Its perceived meaning aside, the pomegranate, in its physical form, features many architectural works, as well as on handcrafts, spanning a variety of mediums. More importantly, the pomegranate is one of the few foods that is threaded through many cultures on Earth, which makes it a connection, a common ground.
With regards to the ‘why’ question, research shows that the motifs are not simply there to reflect the image of the pomegranate plant, but also in symbolic contexts of protection, immortality, fertility, and abundance.⁴
Known to Turks since ancient times, the pomegranate appears, for the first time in Turkic culture* as a motif, in the hand of a Buddhist god, depicted by Uyghur Turks in the 7th century. During this period and preceding Shamanic periods, the red fruit is known to symbolize prosperity, abundance, and fertility⁴, in specific reference to its resilient growing conditions and its surprising appearance as one whole fruit housing many edible parts.
After the Turks adopted Islam as their main religion, the pomegranate preserves the same stylistic and symbolic features but gains additional meaning by being interpreted in accordance with the new belief system.⁴ The characteristics of the pomegranate plant, losing productivity in parts of the year, regaining it in other parts, and potentially growing new life from its many seeds, is seen in the religious framework as a symbol of birth, reproduction, death, and resurrection. The fact that the pomegranate fruit is directly mentioned in the Qur'an, as well as in the Torah and the Bible, has also given it sacred implications.
Many ideas and values associated with this remarkable fruit over millennia continue to trickle down from the minds of our ancestors into the hands of present-day artists, in Turkey and beyond.
Today, the symbolic meaning behind many plants may be lost on humans as the practice of overt symbolism goes out of fashion. But the pomegranate is rare and is still undeniably symbolic. Especially within the arts, it often refers to one or more of its prescribed meanings, determined by the artist's perspective and/or belief system.
Sergei Paradjanov’s 1969 film The Color of Pomegranates - A metaphorical biography of the 18th-century Georgian born Armenian poet Sayat Nova
When we look back on our history as a species, we see that plants have been, not only a source of health and healing but also a source of endless inspiration. Amongst the many plants artistically interpreted by humans, the resilient, flavorsome pomegranate and its jewel-like interior hold a special place amongst chefs and artists alike, whether they’re creating exquisite meals or artworks in the form of textiles, jewelry, pottery, or even paintings.
To take a piece of this history home with you, visit the Hasat Collection at the Mother Tongue shop here.
Thanks for tuning in to the second part of our collaboration and stay tuned for the next chapter!
*The first known mention of the term ‘Turk’ dates back to the 6th century and applied to only one Turkic group: the Gokturks. Today, this term spans many ethnic groups across Asia -accepted as descendants of the Gokturks- including but not limited to, people who identify as Turkish and have heritage linked to the land Turkey. It is important to note that when we refer to ‘Turkic/Turkish cultures’, we are not imposing this identity on the many diverse ethnicities/cultures who call the land known as Turkey home, and the differentiation can be made via using the term ‘cultures of Turkey.’
Sources: www.researchgate.net/publication/283514767_Origin_History_and_Domestication_of_Pomegranate  http://web.deu.edu.tr/geomed2010/2007/Ozcan-Unaldi.pdf  Bountiful Empire: A History of Ottoman Cuisine by Priscilla Mary Isin, 2018 www.researchgate.net/publication/283514767_Origin_History_and_Domestication_of_Pomegranate / Photo credits in captions where possible.