Jerome Kugan experiments with Persian pomegranate paste…with intriguingly delicious results


First Impressions

Opening the bottle, the paste immediately smeared itself across my hands. The stuff is lugubrious, like honey. And it just hit me how concentrated this stuff was because of how it made my fingers feel sticky as though I’d been dusting my damp hands with castor sugar. And far from the ruby-coloured flesh of fresh pomegranates, the paste is opaque and dark brown. That was a bit of a disappointment because I was expecting a deep shade of pink or magenta at least. Hmm…


Sniffing the paste threw me off a bit. Of all things, it reminded me of prunes. Yes, prunes. From pomegranate to prunes? Gone was my fancied notion that perhaps I’d be cooking with something akin to the nectar of the gods. In its place was a prune-like confection with the consistency and colour of crude oil. My prune suspicions were confirmed upon tasting it. On the tongue, it was darkly sweet with an earthy tang. It also had a slightly astringent tail, like a hint of balsamic vinegar.

I’m no expert on Persian cooking. In fact, I know next to nothing about it. Until I started working on this, I had no idea pomegranate paste even existed. As I began imagining what kind of food it could complement, the first thing that came to mind was charred red meat. Perhaps I imagined that the slightly acidic quality of the paste could counter the smoky taste of charred meat. But that’s just conjecture on my part.

The paste also reminded me of certain fruit coulis I’ve tasted before. And that’s really an obvious pairing. I’ve tried pouring the paste over plain old vanilla ice-cream and it worked really well. The tanginess of the paste brought up memories of eating ice cream with fresh berries, which was nice. I can also imagine the paste whipped with thick cream and served with pies.

The Experiment
The idea for marrying the paste with a wrap was no doubt from having watched the recent remake of The Prisoner, a surreal TV series in which a man who left a top secret project found himself imprisoned in a village where the only food available were “wraps” (so much for McDonald’s). The wrap is also a nod to the kebab and popiah, two other food items that blanket their contents with an edible comforter.

But instead of going with any old wrap, I decided to make a Hakka-style savoury pancake and use that as a wrap for the pan-grilled chicken bits, shredded mint, cucumber, taugeh, and a tooled-up sauce using the pomegranate paste.

The first thing to do was make my tooled-up sauce. For this, I decided to spice it up a bit. Basics of Asian cookery: onion and garlic sautéed in oil; throw in a bit of chilli and lemongrass for flavour; add paste and water; and lastly season with salt and sugar. The sauce turned out, thanks to the paste, a very dark shade of brown. And thanks to the lemongrass, it was super sharp. Great for flavouring the blander ingredients.

Next, the Hakka-style savoury pancake: mix 2/3 plain flour with 1/3 corn flour, egg and water to make a batter with the consistency of runny congee; add shallots and minced udang kering for flavour; salt and pepper to season. On a very hot pan, add a dash of oil, pour in a ladleful of batter, fry until crisp without burning it. Making savoury pancakes is a long tedious project and most fun when you eat as you cook.

Lastly, assembly. Note about interactivity: it’s quite fun to let the dinner guests make their own wraps. Like making any old wrap, start with the blanket. Spread the sauce all over it, lay the other ingredients in a line, and then rock n’ roll!


Verdict
The experiment was a success. Three friends who I managed to trick into ingesting the wrap seemed to like it. They definitely preferred the tooled-up sauce to the original paste. :-D

However, personally, I felt as though I cheated a bit. While I managed to coerce the pomegranate paste into becoming Asian, I also felt that maybe I went too far by adding the chilli and lemongrass. It’s like putting a Persian friend in Ah Beng drag — it felt politically incorrect. :-(

As to the question of whether Malaysians could adopt pomegranate paste as their own, that remains to be seen. The paste on its own, with its prune-ish overtones, is definitely an acquired taste. But there’s still hope in the dessert department. Vanilla ice-cream with pomegranate paste is an unmistakable winner!

***

Ed: One of the ways of journeying through a culture is via our palate; these days, the vaste array of culinary spreads from across the world are ours for the ladling on to our plates. What was exotic is now readily available in grocery aisles labelled “Foods of the World”, and one can just as easily locate a proper American-style hamburger or handmade temaki in Kuala Lumpur.

Similar gastronomical experiences, perhaps just with very subtle variations, can be had in Kuala Lumpur, Rio de Janeiro or Tokyo. Those with a refined palate reading this would probably be aghast at this comparison, but like pre-packaged holiday tours, the reality is that the general masses do not care that much for authenticity – our collective global palates have become trained to recognize and seek homogenous tastes.

Following the journey metaphor, we ask how does the globalised palate locate the taste of home? In our Awesomesauce series, Jerome embarks on an expedition of sorts, as a mad scientist with a spatula as his compass in a kitchen, along with some guinea pigs for good measure. His experiments and the results he arrives at are not by any means scientific or objective. | Feedback:serambi@poskod.my