Apricots: The Golden Seeds of the Sun
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
Called by the Persians the ‘golden seeds of the sun’ and once a favoured aphrodisiac food in the Court of James I, apricots are one of the earliest fruits known to man. Some even believe that they were possibly the ‘apples’ in the Garden of Eden.
Through the centuries, their attractive shape and colour, delicious flavour and wonderful aroma have earned them the reputation as a food truly fit for royalty. One of the finest fruits ever cultivated, apricots are versatile, nutritious and very delectable – in many lands, a much sought after healthy delight.
About 5,000 years ago, the Chinese were the first to domesticate the apricot tree. It became one of their favoured plants and, in the ensuing centuries, they came to believe that its fruit had special powers. In Chinese literature, we find that its blossoms were a symbol of love and seduction.
From China, cultivation of apricots spread to the nearby lands. Alexander the Great is credited with introducing the tree into Greece and later its fruit became an important part of the Roman cuisine. However, apricots never really took root in Europe until the Arabs brought them to the Iberian Peninsula. Spain thereafter became the world-leading producer and, through that country, almost all the European languages derived their name for apricots from the Arabic al-bargug (the apricot).
In the 17th century the tree was introduced by the Spaniards into the U.S.A. and from that time it has flourished all along the American Pacific coast, especially in California. Here, 90 percent of U.S. and 40 percent of commercial world production is grown and processed.
Apricots come in a number of species and are classified under the genus prunus armeniaca. Very ornamental and well shaped, the tree is a member of the rose family and thrives in temperate climates. It grows easily from seed and reaches a height of 20 feet. In spring its delicate white-pinkish flowers beautify the countryside, and in summer its eye-catching, plump-juicy fruit creates a colourful atmosphere in both field and garden.
The fruit, whose peak season is in June and July, develop their inviting tang and sweetness on the tree. Hence, apricots must be harvested fully ripe when they are at the maximum of taste and lusciousness, but still firm to the touch. The ideal time to have them picked is when they develop a uniform golden-yellow colour with a red blush and a soft velvety feel – resembling ripe peaches.
The best quality tree-ripened apricots cannot be shipped, only consumed locally. They travel badly and the fully matured fruit is hard to find except in the parts of the country where apricots are cultivated. If to be shipped they are gathered somewhat unripe and, hence, lose much of their flavour.
This supposedly ‘Garden of Eden’ fruit is a valuable addition to one’s daily fare. The Hunza people of Pakistan attribute their amazing longevity to a diet that consists chiefly of apricots. In Syria, where they are a favoured fruit, for centuries they have been dried into a product called qamaraldin and eaten as a health food.
Found in all Middle Eastern markets of North America, this ancient natural sweet is one of the most wholesome treats produced by man. Modern science has recognized the food value, which some of the eastern peoples had long associated with apricots, and in the space program they have been utilized as part of the astronauts’ diets.
Raw, they contain no cholesterol and are low in calories – 3 medium apricots contain about 50 calories. On the other hand, they are high in potassium and vitamins A and C. They also contain carbohydrates, calcium, fibre, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, protein, vitamin B, a little sodium and a trace of fat. They do not have as much sugar as other fruits and when ripe are prescribed in moderate quantities for diabetics.
Their richness in minerals makes apricots beneficial for anaemia, asthma, bronchitis, catarrh, diarrhoea, toxaemia, tuberculosis, and blood impurities. They are excellent in diets designed to reduce weight and for the removal of skin pimples. Also, they aid in cases of constipation, the destruction of intestinal worms, the alleviation of gallstones and help to keep the heart muscles healthy. In addition, the nectar of the apricot has little gas, especially when compared to apple juice that produces 90 percent as much gas as beans.
Firm apricots will ripen in a few days at room temperature. However, when ripe they are very perishable and should be used immediately. They keep only from 3 to 5 days in a refrigerator.
Apricots can be consumed fresh, canned, dried or frozen. When tree-ripened and fresh, they are so delicious that, to many, it is crime to cook them. Nevertheless, they are often cooked by themselves or as an ingredient in other dishes. Dried, they have an intense nippy full-flavoured taste, making them very delectable – to many the noblest product of apricots. With cooking, they more than double in size – 1 pound dried makes about 4 1/2 cups cooked.
Although not as succulent as fresh or dried, the fruit can also be canned and frozen. Canned, they usually contain a large amount of sugar and are not as healthful as the fresh or dried. For freezing, they need very little preparation – only washing, cutting into halves and covering with a syrup containing ascorbic acid, then sealing and freezing.
Apricots can be purchased in all the above-mentioned fashions. Fresh and dried, they can be eaten as snacks or stewed with water, sugar or honey. When frozen they need only be thawed and when canned, as is, for desserts and light snacks.
Apricots fresh, dried, canned or frozen can be used in baking products, ice cream, jam, jellies, puddings, salads, sherbets and stews. In whatever type of dish these ‘golden seeds of the sun’ are employed, they give food a mouth-watering appeal. Their healthful qualities and pent up explosion of tangy flavour have stood the test of centuries. Alike, for the peasants of Asia who have consumed them for hundreds of years or our modern astronauts, they have been and still are, a looked-forward-to, nourishing delight.