Zero waste: Melony variations

Zero waste: Melony variations


No summer is complete without melons in Turkey, and that is for sure. But which melon is the question: “Karpuz” or “kavun?” The former is the watermelon, while the latter is the melon. The first one is regarded as more refreshing, while the second one is more perfumy, even dreamy. Both are sweet. If not sufficiently sweet, they are dismissed as “kelek,” a word that refers to their unripe form. “Kelek” can refer to an unripe person too, but that is not the only negative connotation. It may mean bald, but also a complicated situation, especially in a relationship. I sometimes think that Facebook should have an option for relationship status marked simply as “kelek” -- it will have zillions of likes and that will be our contribution to the world dictionary to describe hopeless cases. Then there is a meaning denoting action: If you do “kelek” to a person, it means doing wrong to them, almost like a betrayal or pure fickleness.

Kelek, however, can be delightful as well. Unripe baby melon is refreshing and enjoyed being eaten like a cucumber, though not as juicy. But, they make perfect pickles; firm flesh, appetizing cool green color, and a hint of cucumbery aroma. Watermelon rind evokes the same fresh feelings. They make good pickles too, but in Turkey, they are preferred for making sweet preserves. Perhaps, for Turkish people, watermelon needs to be as sweet as baklava, and even the rind needs to be transformed into something sweet, not savory. The result is almost glass-like pieces of translucent rind, glistening with a clove-scented syrup, sometimes tinted in pink. The process to achieve these jewel-like morsels requires some toil. Only the white part of the rind is used, and the green outer part has to be carefully removed with a sharp knife while no flesh must remain in the inner part, then rind is cut into equal-sized lozenge shapes, neither so big nor so small so that they can soak up the syrup evenly. The neatly cut pieces are then soaked in the water previously mixed with slaked lime. The lime water has to be well-settled. When the lime entirely sinks in water, the clear part is then transferred to a bowl without disturbing the sediment, while the rind is left to soak for a few hours or overnight. This makes the cell walls of the rind stronger and resistant to dissolving and going mushy when boiled in the syrup. As the pieces boil in the sugar syrup, they get more and more glassy, with an almost resistant to the teeth bite on the outside, but lusciously syrupy inside. Hard to reject one truly.

Seeds are important too. Either melon or watermelon, no seed deserves to be trashed to the bin. Watermelon seeds are roasted to make a nibble, but more often the roasted seeds go crushed with spices, herbs and sesame seeds to make the spice-mix dip “zahter” to dunk bread morsels previously dipped in an earthy olive oil. Of course, watermelon seeds are also dried and roasted with salt, just as sunflower seeds, equally addictive. Today it is still to be found in the southeast and eastern Mediterranean provinces of Turkey. The seeds were also very popular with the Sephardic Jewish communities of Edirne and İzmir, called Pipitas de Karpuz, it was another way to make use of the watermelon seeds, definitely in line with the no-waste principle of Jewish cookery. Melon seeds have another destiny. They make a delectable drink. Think of almond milk with a faint melony scent; you are there. Melon seed drink is named “sübye” or “subiya,” and it is thought to be a legacy of Sephardic cuisine in İzmir and Tire. Traditionally, sübye is to break the 24-hour fast of Yom Kippur, observed 10 days after the Jewish New Year Rosh Ashana, this year to be observed between the two sundowns of Sept. 15-16.

Just like the watermelon rind preserves, the melon seed drink needs the patience to make, and it needs lots and lots of seeds, or better to say melons to eat. Today, the process seems to be easier with all the advanced kitchen appliances such as the robot, but in the old times, the seeds had to be pounded with sugar into a paste, then strained to make the milky drink. Similar seed-based drinks are common in Spanish and Latino cuisines: The refreshing “horchata” can be of various seeds, mainly making use of tiger nuts, almonds or rice. Actually, the term horchata comes from the word Hordeum, the Latin for barley. So, the drink can originally be both almond-based or grain-based. In Ottoman cuisine, both the technique and the term were applied to extract the starchy goodness of rice. There were once rice sübye drink sellers in Istanbul and Cairo, but now rice sübye paste is only used as a base to milk puddings. The seed-drink idea seems to have traveled around the Mediterranean, starting in the Middle East, traveling to Moorish Spain, and with the expelled Sephardic community, back to Ottoman lands, and the rice version directly from Cairo to Istanbul. The almond version “orgeat” is popular in Italy, originally made with a contribution of barley with a hint of bitter almonds. When flavored with rose water or orange flower water, it is the most sublime summer drink. It seems that, for the almond versions, almonds were too costly to be used for such a popular drink, so street vendors resorted to using cucurbit seeds to cut down on price. For example, Salonika Jews favored pepidata making use of squash seeds. Needless to say, the idea also traveled to Latino countries in the New World, reappearing with numerous variations. It is a mind-boggling journey, but it is also proof that a good idea travels fast.

In short, a melon or a watermelon is not only about the goodness of its refreshing sweet flesh, it is much more, even the rind and the seeds can be transformed to the most exquisite of tastes, practically turning trash into a princess -- a lesson to be learned from the no-waste principle of old times, and melony taste variations to be enjoyed in summer days.

Aylin Öney Tan,