Motivation to Attend: A recipe in the weekend Globe and Mail for fesenjan, a classic Persian chicken stew, catches my eye. The ingredient list is tantalizing: ground walnuts, cardamom, turmeric, star anise – and 1/2 cup of pomegranate molasses. “Pomegranate molasses?” I think. “What’s that?”
First Class – Teaching Faculty: Nancy and Anisa
“All right, cooks of the world,” I say to my colleagues on Monday at the office lunch table. “Who knows anything about pomegranate molasses?” Nancy, who experiments with ethnic cuisine, and Anisa, who has Ugandan roots, tell me that it’s a common ingredient in Middle Eastern and African cooking. “Any of the halal stores around town will have it,” they assure me.
Second Class – Teaching Faculty: Employee of Mill Woods Grocery and Halal Meats
“Pomegranate molasses? Hold the phone one minute, ma’am. We usually have it but I have to check…..Yes, yes, we have pomegranate paste….Yes, ma’am, I know you wanted pomegranate molasses, but they’re the same thing. The word “paste” is just a Persian translation error.”
Third Class – Teaching Faculty: Chowhound Discussants
In a 2006 online conversation, “was_bk,” “rworange,” “cloudy,” and “cheryl_h” debate the difference between pomegranate paste and pomegranate molasses. One person says they’re interchangeable. Another says molasses is thicker and sweeter than paste. Someone else realizes that a product she thought was pomegranate molasses was actually pomegranate paste. Sheesh, I think. Some people may have time to debate this kind of stuff online, but I don’t. If the MIllwoods place has pomegranate paste, then pomegranate paste it is.
Homework: I pull into the parking lot of 34 Avenue Plaza, home to a collection of stores that serve Edmonton’s East Indian community. I’m looking around for Mill Woods Grocery and Halal Meats, the promised source of pomegranate paste. when I’m distracted by the intoxicating aroma of exotic spices wafting from another shop: Spice Island East and West Indian Groceries. Maybe they have actual pomegranate molasses?
“Sorry, we usually carry it, but we’re sold out. We’ll have some by mid-week.” I murmur my apologies, say my recipe is on the menu for Sunday dinner, and cross the parking lot to my first choice store. I find the pomegranate paste and plunk it down in front of the young, ear-bud wearing man at the cash desk. “Are you the guy I talked to on the phone about pomegranate paste?”
He shakes his head.
“Well, I read on the Internet that some people think pomegranate paste is the same as pomegranate molasses, and some people don’t. I just wondered if you had an opinion.”
He takes out one earbud. “People talk about stuff like that online? Really?” He grins. “Those people really need to get a life. That’ll be $6.99.”
Fourth Class: Teaching Faculty – Anisa
” Hey,” Anisa says when she goes past my desk the next Monday morning. “How did your stew turn out?”
At the risk of inviting another cook to spoil the fezenjan broth, I tell her how the weekend’s paste vs. molasses debate had shaken my previously confident approach to attempting the recipe.
“Well, I don’t think they’re exactly the same thing. Paste is more sour, molasses is more sweet. Depends what you like. Just taste a little bit before you put it in, and then add as much as you want. But make sure you put it in at the end of the recipe. Then you’ll be able to taste it.”
Five days later, my $6.99 bottle of pomegranate paste exchanged for a $4.99 bottle of pomegranate molasses, I start in on the recipe, searing the chicken and setting it aside to make the sauce. The directions tell me to fry the onions, ground walnuts, star anise, cardamom, turmeric and cinnamon “until fragrant” – and is it ever. I wish someone would invent an olfactory application so that I could share the savory, nutty, licoricey aroma that filled my kitchen. You’ll just have to use my words, close your eyes, and imagine.
One last step. What wine would possibly pair with all these exotic flavors? Our favorite wine vendor says it will have to be something “big and spicy” and recommends a 2009 Greek Boutari.
Thirty minutes after I put the casserole into the oven, the mixture emerges – brown, bubbly, and ready to be ladeled over Basmati rice.
If I do say so myself, my assignment was worthy of an A+. My thanks to the Academy for their support.