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Every time I eat pomegranate soup, I remember the first time I tasted it. I was in Irvine, CA, at Wholesome Choice Market, a veritable hall of Middle Eastern wonders with a resplendent food court featuring classic Persian dishes. I chose the molten red clay–hued pomegranate soup, which was brimming with grains and beans. As the slowly steeped flavors of the soup revealed themselves in every vibrant spoonful, I looked around and noticed that I was surrounded by other Iranians, and for the first time in my life, I was in a place where everyone else looked like me. Whenever I taste this soup, the comforting feeling of being known comes flashing through my senses.
Pomegranate soup starts out like a classic chunky bean soup recipe, with browned onions, garlic, beans, and barley, all cooked in stock. But then all of a sudden, the ingredients screech off the familiar path into wild territory, with cumin, turmeric, dried mint, and most exotic, tart ruby pomegranate syrup, following one after the other into the pot. This is a vegetarian pomegranate soup, a deliciously unfancy Iranian dish that’s probably been around since the domestication of pomegranates.
Although fresh pomegranates and, more often, pomegranate juice, are recent additions to the American supermarket, this fantastical fruit (the one responsible for trapping the mythical Persephone in the underworld for half the year) is an integral part of the Iranian diet. Ancient tablets engraved during the Persian Empire list pomegranates as a staple food, and in today’s cuisine, the sour red fruit shows up everywhere in shifting shapes: stretchy scrolls of fruit rolls, tiny orbs of fresh and dried seeds, and slow-pouring molasses. In all its forms, the tang of pomegranate subtly defines the taste of anything it’s added to, and it’s what gives this hearty soup a bright, fruity finish.
Luckily, these days, you can find pomegranate molasses not only in Middle Eastern grocery stores, but in gourmet and natural markets as well. If you can’t find pomegranate molasses, you can always buy the juice, which is widely available, and cook it down into a syrup.
Whenever I cook with pomegranate molasses, I prefer to use brands that don’t contain sugar, because I like the pure taste of the fruit on its own and I prefer to control the amount of sweetener that gets added, but unsweetened molasses can be harder to come by. If you can’t find pomegranate in any form, a generous splash of lemon or lime will lift up the earthy flavors of beans and barley. To find dried mint, you will likely need to visit an Indian or Arabic market, or seek it out online; it’s a magical ingredient that imparts food with a savory herbal flavor, sweeter than parsley and more pronounced and fragrant than coriander.
Once you have all of the ingredients, this is an easy recipe. Like any hearty winter soup or stew, this dish gets better the longer it sits, so if possible, make it the day before serving. Or make it to eat throughout the week and it will taste more vibrant each day, as the different ingredients assert their flavors. As with many old world recipes, every family has their own way of making pomegranate soup. This is my approximation of that very first version I tasted in California.
- 1/4 cup olive oil, plus extra for topping
- 1 yellow onion, diced
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 3/4 cup yellow split peas
- 1/2 cup lentils
- 1/2 cup mung beans
- 1/2 cup pearled barley
- 1 large beet, diced small
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 12 cups vegetable stock or water
- 2 tablespoons dried mint
- 1/2 cup pomegranate molasses
- 1 bunch chopped cilantro
- 1 cup labne or thick yogurt
- Seeds of 1 pomegranate
- Salt and pepper