Few fruits have the cultural resonance or play such a central role in literature and religious iconography as the pomegranate.
From the bible to the Qur’an, Arabian Nights to the Greek myth of Persephone, the pomegranate, with its unusual structure and fleshy, blood-red seeds and juice have captured the imagination over centuries and become an integral ingredient in Middle Eastern cuisine.
The fruit takes its name from the Latin “pōmum”, meaning "apple", and “grānātum”, meaning "seeded". In Old French it was pomme-grenade and in Early English this became misinterpreted as the “apple of Granada” – the Spanish city established by the Moors in the early eleventh century, which uses the pomegranate as its heraldic symbol.
When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, it was most likely a pomegranate rather than an apple they devoured, and the fruit has come to stand for knowledge. The Qur'an, too, contains references to the fruit, with pomegranates growing in the gardens of paradise.
Pomegranates have also had starring roles in Arabic folk tales.
In the Arabian Nights – the collection of Middle Eastern folk stories first published in English in 1706, the central character Scheherazade tells a number of tales featuring the fruit.
In one, a battle between a cat and wolf sees the cat turn itself into a bright red pomegranate and evade capture when it splits open, scattering its grains.
The fruit is made up of a thick outer skin, an inner white pulp and the seeds have a juicy reddish pulp that surround the firm seed itself.
Each pomegranate contains between 200 and 1,400 seeds and these can be used as a garnish in salads and on meat, or processed to produce a tangy syrup used as a marinade for fish or meat, or even pressed to produce a rich, refreshing drink.
The fruit is thought to have originated in the region that is now Iran, and it is the influence of Iranian cuisine that brought it to the United Arab Emirates, which lies just across the Persian Gulf from Iran and borders Saudi Arabia and Oman.
Although the oil wealth of the UAE is the seventh largest globally, there is only a population of a little over nine million people, of which almost eight million are expatriates.
With such a diverse and international population, the country’s cuisine is a reflection of the different neighbouring cultures such as Iran and Lebanon, as well as influences further afield.
The modern cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, which have grown up rapidly as global trading hubs, play host to both local restaurants serving pan-Arabic dishes and outposts of famous international chefs.
Before tomatoes were introduced from the Americas, pomegranates fulfilled a similar role in Middle Eastern dishes both as juice and syrupy molasses. Some traditional Iranian dishes, now widespread in the region, feature the fruit prominently.
Fesenjān is a thick stew made from pomegranate juice and ground walnuts, usually served with duck or other poultry or balls of ground lamb. It is eaten with white or yellow rice. Ash-e anar, meanwhile, is a kind of soup made from pomegranate juice, vegetables, yellow split peas and garnished with mint leaves and pomegranate seeds.
But it is the fruit’s seeds that attract the most attention. Used in salads and sprinkled on cooked lamb to add a tart sweetness that cuts through the natural fattiness, they add an eye- catching ruby red glint promising a flavour redolent of the Middle East.