The Giant Melon

The Giant Melon

When reading novelist Roald Dahl’s well-known children’s stories, I always wonder what all his food descriptions would have been like, had he not been of Norwegian origin living in Britain but instead, been born and lived in this part of the world. 

I’m almost sure that the main subject of “James and the Giant Peach” would have been swapped with a gigantic watermelon, the huge ones they have in Diyarbakır, the southeast city famed for its watermelons. There would surely have been many mentions of Turkish Delights scattered in between the pages here and there. I have even dreamt that “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” was set in a factory for Turkish Delights. Alas, Dahl belonged to British lands and probably never tasted a proper watermelon in his life.

Watermelons are a delight of summer days in Mediterranean countries, often part of mid-summer feasts and celebrations. In Turkey, summer nights are never complete without a watermelon cut open with family or friends, joyously shared. Nowadays, people sometimes complain about being single in the urban jungle, and one symbolic telltale of loneliness is not being able to buy a huge tasty watermelon and share it with others. Watermelon is ideal to quench thirst and to freshen up on mid-summer nights, but it is beyond that, it has the magical charm to create a convivial atmosphere, the joy of sharing and feasting, at almost no cost, instantly at any spot. It is safe with weight watchers. When the fear of beach and bikini call for urgent diets, many Turkish ladies resort to a watermelon and white cheese diet, which is also the ideal duo as a nice escape lunch without the hassle of cooking. In a way, watermelon is the comfort food of Turkish summers. I’m sure it’s also true for all Mediterranean countries. I remember feeling quite at home when I saw slices of watermelons sold in streets of Rome when I was a student. The watermelon stand was exactly at the corner of the Trastevere bus stop, called funnily Cocomero instead of its common name Anguria in Italian. Italians cherish watermelon in every possible way. The Venetian Festa del Redentore (July 20th this year, so arrange your last minute tickets!) is best enjoyed in boats, with a watermelon hanging down the water left to cool to end the party.

Native to Africa, watermelon spread to Asia as early as the seventh century, first to India then deep in Asia and China. The Iberian Peninsula knew watermelon via the Moors, and Sicily by the Arabs. The Turks probably already knew watermelon in Central Asia, but it may have already been grown in Anatolia before they arrived. Watermelon is called “karpuz” in Turkish, a name that originates from Persian, which may have been borrowed from ancient Greek, “karpós,” meaning any fruit or crop. Funnily, today’s Greek “karpouzi” took it from Turkish. This borrowing and re-borrowing of names show that Anatolian land had always been permeable to different cultures, with the Persian and Greek cultures endlessly shifting geographies and reigning the same territories with overlapping intervals.

We know that the watermelon has spread to some parts of Europe with the Ottomans, especially non-Mediterranean countries. Food historian Mary Priscilla Işın gives interesting details in her wonderful book, “Bountiful Empire: A History of Ottoman Cuisine.”

“Seventeenth-century names for the watermelon- Turkish gourd or Turkish cucumber ‘Turkie coocomber’ in English, and ‘turquin’ in French – reflect the Ottoman role in introducing sweet watermelon varieties into Europe,” she wrote.

Furthermore, Germans initially named it “arbuse,” apparently coming from karpuz, so did the Russians call it “arbuz.” There is even a suggestion that the German word for pumpkin, “kürbis,” has its roots in Turkish karpuz. Though the pumpkin came from America, it was initially thought to be from Turkey.

Coming back to Dahli-esque fantasies, the watermelons of Diyarbakır, which also have geographical appellations, are really gigantic, oddly having a tall oblong shape that accentuates its grandness, often pictured with a toddler standing naked inside one, to give an idea of its size. Time to taste one, or better yet to opt for a smaller regular one. No summer night is complete without sharing a watermelon: A popular often repeated phrase in Turkey cannot tell it better: “Daha karpuz kesecektik,” meaning “Wait, we were going to cut open a watermelon,” often told when a party comes to an abrupt end, when somebody leaves a friend’s table with no reason, or a guest tends to go away sooner than expected. So have your watermelon before the summer party is over!

Book of the Week

“Bountiful Empire: A History of Ottoman Cuisine” by Priscilla Mary Işın from Reaktion Books is a very recommendable read, full of interesting trivia, based on a thorough and solid research, giving in-depth information on the food pathways of Ottomans. The book was published last year but won a very recent second best award in the Culinary History category at the prestigious Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, which was held at the Macao International Book Fair in July 2019.

Recipe of the Week
Sicilian watermelon pudding, Gelo di Melo, must the celebration of the giant fruit.
This very Sicilian delight is indeed like a soft Turkish delight made with watermelon juice. The seeds are mimicked with tiny chocolate pieces, which I can do without.
There is always some bits and pieces remaining, the fibrous seedy parts, some juice collected in the trays, so one can always make this pudding with remains of a convivial watermelon feast. Measure 1 liter of watermelon juice, freshly pressed from cut-up pieces through a fine muslin cloth, or just whizz some chunks and pass through a fine metal sieve if you want a silky jelly. Taste and sweeten the juice if necessary: 100 grams of sugar for a liter will be more than enough. A good trick is to mix a handful of jasmine flowers with the sugar, wait for it to macerate a little and then add to the juice. Mix 90 grams of corn starch with a glass of the juice to avoid lumps forming, then add to the rest. Cook over medium heat until the mixture thickens. If using chocolate pieces to resemble the seeds, wait until the mixture cools down and add a cup of chocolate drops or cacao nibs. If not, transfer the mixture into individual serving cups or stemmed glasses. Refrigerate until set. Decorate with more jasmine flowers if you can get hold of any, or a few blanched almonds and a dusting of cinnamon. Enjoy chilled to chill out!