Tourists often mistake it for balsamic vinegar, as it sits similarly disguised next to the olive oil in dainty carafes served with salad. Only when poured does it reveal itself as an imposter, because even the most aged versions of balsamic aren’t this thick. The rich dark purple viscous syrup clings to salad leaves with a tenacity that vinegar can only dream of. Like balsamic it is both sweet and tangy but has extra depth that comes from its fruity pomegranate base.
Although often falsely called molasses, it is in fact a concentrate. Nar Ekşisi is made by first squeezing the juice from a large quantity of cin narı, an almost inedible version of pomegranate. The sight of this process can be seen all across Turkey, but particularly in the south east, during the autumn months. Whole families come together, sometimes spreading a plastic sheet over the fruit and walking on it for maximum pressure. The juice is then reduced by boiling until the required thick consistency is reached.
Anyone who has ever seen a pomegranate orchard or even just a solitary tree due to be harvested, will agree that this is a practical way of saving the bountiful fruit, which, when it cannot wait any longer, bursts open impatiently exposing jewel-like fruits to delighted birds. Pomegranates are native to Iran but are found throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean regions. Likewise nar ekşisi has found its place in Persian, Arabic, and Turkish cuisine.
Where To Find It
Nar ekşisi is such a common staple of the Turkish kitchen, you can pick up plastic bottles of the stuff in almost every supermarket or food shop in Turkey. However, beware that inauthentic versions may include added sugar or citric acid. If you want to get a more traditional, natural taste, its best to buy the homemade variety. These can be found in the open-air food markets around the city, Asri Turşucusu in Çukurcuma, the Antiochia brand at the restaurant of the same name, or Bedesten Café in the Grand Bazaar.
Like sumac and tahini, nar ekşisi is an ingredient that refuses to remain an eastern secret. Either brought back from exotic holidays or sought out in Turkish grocers, it is making its way successfully into western kitchens. Even though it’s delicious as a simple salad dressing mixed with olive oil, it would be a disservice to its complex nature, so here are some suggestions:
Blend with roasted red peppers, spicy red pepper paste, walnuts, breadcrumbs, lemon juice, olive oil and a little cumin, garlic and seasoning to make the spicy Turkish/Syrian Muhammara dip. To make the Iranian special occasion dish, Fesanjan, sauté some onions, add pieces of chicken/ duck/turkey and fry until browned before covering with a cup each of nar ekşisi, ground toasted walnuts, water, and season with a little salt and pepper. Simmer for 30- 40 minutes until the sauce has thickened and been reduced to a rich, tart stew.
London-based celebrity chef, Yotam Ottolenghi recommends using it as a dressing for legumes such as butterbeans or drizzling it over crushed sweet potato. Alternatively, he suggests mixing it with the flesh of char- grilled aubergines, tahini, parsley, lemon juice, and olive oil for a take on the Levantine classic Baba Ganoush. Some Turkish cooks also use it to sharpen up the spiced Turkish bulgur wheat salad, kısır or with the filling for stuffed vine leaves. You can also use it as a marinade or glaze for salmon, lamb, or poultry.
A Mythical Fruit
Pomegranates have a well-established place in symbolism as well as in the kitchen. In Greek mythology, Hades tricked the underworld goddess, Persephone into spending six months of each year in the underworld for the six pomegranate seeds she ate whilst being held captive. Her mother Demeter (the harvest-goddess) mourns her loss during this time by no longer bestowing fertility on the earth. It is only when she returns in springtime that the plants start to grow again. This was an Ancient Greek explanation for the seasons.
How To Make It
If you want to have a go at making your own, the process is straight forward enough. To produce 350-400ml, you’ll need around 5kg of sour pomegranates. Squeeze the juice by crushing the fruit through a colander with the back of a spoon. Pass this juice through a cheesecloth to remove any traces of seeds or pith. Pour the juice into a large steel pot and boil for 3-4 hours, skimming the foam as it appears. It is ready when it has reduced down to a thick, viscous consistency.
Taken from the September-October, 2013 issue