Pomegranates have been mythologized and cherished by religions and civilizations worldwide for centuries due to their culinary value, aesthetic appeal, and therapeutic benefits.
Jewish religion thought it contained 613 seeds, signifying the number of commandments in the Torah, whereas ancient Greek belief equated it with the underworld.
The pomegranate shrub (Punica granatum), believed to have originated in the area extending from northern India to Iran, quickly expanded westward to the Mediterranean and eastward to China. Many Middle Eastern recipes continue to feature this fruit, which is highly esteemed in nations like Iran, Armenia, and Turkey.
Nevertheless, it would be challenging to discover a South Caucasian country that extols the pomegranate more than Azerbaijan, where the fruit is revered as a sacred national emblem.
The "king of fruit," as it is commonly called (partly because its sepals resemble a crown), is extremely important in local food and culture. On the one hand, the abundance of ruby-red pomegranate boxes in the "Land of Fire" markets and grocery stores is sure to impress any traveler. On the other hand, the fruit has many culinary uses, such as adding jewel-like arils (seeds) to national dishes like plov (pilaf) and making natural juices, jams, and sauces. Countless applications appear.
"Pomegranates and Saffron: A Culinary Journey to Azerbaijan" by Feride Buyuran exposes a few of the more obscure ones: "An example would be nargovurma, a meat dish that benefits from the addition of tangy arils to counteract the richness of the meat and aid digestion."
In the Goychay region, the fruit is used to make nardancha, a sweet preserve, and sharbat, a refreshing drink, from the arils. "Interestingly, these preserves are used as a sweet topping for rice pilafs and as an accompaniment to tea," adds Buyaran. "One must-have accompaniment to fried or grilled fish dishes is narsharab, a tangy syrup that resembles molasses and is made from pomegranate seeds."
There are cosmetic and therapeutic uses for the seeds and peel as well. The pomegranate is a classic example of a superfruit, and innumerable articles extoll the virtues of this fruit's many health benefits, including its abundance of antioxidants, polyphenols, vitamin C, and folic acid.
Pomegranate wine, typically made in rural homes, must also be mentioned. You may sample it at chic wine bars in Baku, the capital, where it has recently become a trademark product thanks to sophisticated wineries.
Some very breathtaking Azerbaijani meals also feature pomegranate.
According to Buyuran, "Barnum" is a dish showcasing abundant pomegranates. In this recipe, eggs are cooked on top of a thin layer of pomegranate arils that have been sautéed with onions.
A visual delight! It is a source of great pride for the inhabitants of the Salyan region, located on the banks of the Kura River.
Another living dish entails stuffing a roasted game bird, fish, or fowl with walnut and pomegranate paste.
Nargovurma is another dish that you really must try, according to Buyuran. It's a stew that features chicken or pork pieces cooked with onions and chestnuts, and towards the end of the cooking process, a substantial amount of pomegranate seeds are added. You can have it with rice pilaf or toast.
As a cultural icon that has long inspired local artists, writers, and even fashionistas, the pomegranate has transformed into more than just a food product in Azerbaijan. This transformation occurred after thousands of years of cultivation in local orchards and trading along the Caucasian branch of the Silk Road.
The Azerbaijani people place a high value on pomegranates. They stand for plenty, good fortune, and procreation as a national symbol. According to Buyuran, pomegranates can be seen in various artistic and literary works.
"While visiting the Sheki Khan's Palace in the northwest, observe the fresco in the Khan's meeting room. It depicts a lovely pomegranate tree, a symbol of the paradise garden."
Poets Fuzuli and Nizami Ganjavi, as well as renowned Azerbaijani artists Sattar Baklulzade, Tair Salakhov, and Togrul Narimanbekov, as well as the bright paintings of these artists, show Azerbaijan's love of the pomegranate, says artist Delyafruz Baghirova.
The pomegranate, according to her folklore, is a sign of love. People used to think it was impolite to say "I love you" with words, so instead, men would bring pomegranates as a token of their affection. Additionally, it represents unity, prosperity, and fertility.
Celebration of pomegranates
Pomegranates are grown all over Azerbaijan, but the town of Goychay in the Aran economic zone, near the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains in north-central Azerbaijan, is known for having the best-tasting pomegranates.
The Pomegranate Festival is celebrated here annually, as is customary, but the coronavirus pandemic forced its postponement to November last year. After its 2006 debut, the festival swiftly rose to the status of Azerbaijan's most beloved rural event.
The two-day event, which falls around the time of the pomegranate harvest in the Goychay region's 32 villages, brings thousands of people—a mix of locals and tourists brought in by bus from Baku—to the normally peaceful town's central streets, where stalls selling juicy pomegranates abound.
More than sixty distinct kinds, ranging in size, shape, and color from white to ruby-red, are cultivated across the nation because of its varied climate. At the Goychay Pomegranate Festival, you may see many of them on exhibit alongside pomegranate-based foods and drinks, including juices, jams, sauces, cakes, wines, and even medicinal dried peel.
At the same time, little cafes start tossing out the nation's favorite kebabs, national music and dance performances take place on stages, and contests are held to crown various champions, such as the giant pomegranate, the most attractive "pomegranate girl," and the fastest squeezer of pomegranates. Every year, to maintain interest, the contests are changed.
In 2020, because of its uniqueness, UNESCO included Nar Bayrami—the name given to it in Azerbaijan—on the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity List.
Trade in pomegranates
Nar Bayrami also gives one a sense of the massive pomegranate industry in Azerbaijan, which is a significant part of the country's agricultural sector. The Azerbaijan Pomegranate Producers and Exporters Association reports that in 2022, the country produced 187,000 tons of pomegranates, with 15% of that crop being exported.
Sales to Russia and Ukraine accounted for the bulk, although talks are underway to expand sales of Azerbaijan's "king of fruits" to China and future European markets. As a result of its prominent position in the worldwide pomegranate market and its good climate and soil conditions, the country's export potential is highly regarded.
Despite the optimism for the future, local pomegranate production may be significantly impacted by changes in temperature, precipitation patterns, and extreme weather events brought about by climate change. In response, there has been a push for local farmers to adopt more sustainable water management practices and cultivate climate-resilient crops.
But Azerbaijan's centuries-long love of the pomegranate will undoubtedly endure, industrial ups and downs be damned.
Edited by: Marina Ramzy Mourid
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