The pomegranate has been cultivated all over the Mediterranean and the Arabian Peninsula, including in Saudi, since ancient times. Pomegranates are even mentioned in the Quran, where they are described as one of the “bounties of paradise.” Farms in the Al Baha and Taif regions now see more than 200,000 pomegranate trees produce 30,000 tons of fruit each year.
It takes three or four years for a pomegranate tree to start bearing fruit, and a harvest takes place about six months after the tree first begins to flower (the harvesting of the fruit typically occurs from July to October in Saudi). The fruit doesn’t continue to ripen off the tree, so growers must test it before a harvest begins. When tapped with a finger, the fruit should make a metallic sound. It must then be cut, stem and all, rather than plucked from the branches of the tree.
Although red pomegranates are the most iconic, the local “mangulati” variety ranges in shade from red to pink to yellow to green. As with all pomegranates, its ripeness is not indicated by color, but by taste. As the fruit matures, the sour flavor of the seeds gives way to an intense sweetness.
Pomegranates are prized not only for their amazing flavor but also for their health and medicinal qualities. Considered a superfood thanks to a high level of fiber and antioxidants, pomegranates are thought to help stabilize blood sugar and cholesterol, slow cancer growth and lower heart disease risk. They’re also packed with vitamins C, B5, A and E and minerals including calcium, potassium and iron. The seeds provide an abundance of micronutrients, phytosterols, essential fatty acids and fiber. In traditional folkloric medicine in the Middle East, powdered pomegranate peelings are used to treat burns and infected cuts and wounds. The broth of dried, boiled pomegranate peel is used to soothe sore throats and ease indigestion.
Every aril (seed covering) has a single seed in its center, surrounded by juice that is contained in a fine translucent skin. The entire aril is edible, with a crunchy texture that gives way to flavorful bursts of juice. In Saudi, the fruit is used in all stages of maturity, with sour pomegranates standing in for lime as a tangy ingredient in dishes and drinks, the juice distilled into tart molasses and syrup, and the sweet arils of the ripe fruit eaten as a luxurious seasonal snack.
During pomegranate season, pomegranates are added to fruit plates, on which they are presented broken in half to expose the seeds and offered to guests as a sign of hospitality. The arils may also be used as garnish on savory dishes and salads. (For an easy diced cucumber and pomegranate seed salad, simply mix 2 cups of diced cucumber with 1 cup of seeds, add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and a sprinkle of salt.) But the most popular way to enjoy a pomegranate in Saudi is either to drink the juice at one of many fresh juice stands or to snack on the crunchy arils on their own.
One of the most difficult parts of enjoying this fruit is figuring out how to access the arils. First, roll the pomegranate on a hard surface to loosen the internal seeds, then cut off the “flower” top of the fruit and either slice into wedges along the white pith or simply use your hands to break the fruit in half. You can remove the seeds individually with your fingers to eat immediately or remove them all at once, for use in a salad, for example. To remove all the seeds, submerge the halves or pieces in a bowl of water and remove them with your fingers (this will prevent the highly staining red juice from getting everywhere) or turn the cut fruit seed-side down over a bowl and hit the skin with a heavy spoon to dislodge the seeds.