What fruit can you add to stir-fry, drink as agua fresca or beer, and make into sashimi or curry? Watermelon. Of course, you can enjoy it in its natural state too. Simply sliced or used as an ingredient in a summer salad, watermelon is delicious. But you can use it in surprising ways too.
I once assumed that watermelon was native to America or at least was most popular in the U.S. Boy, was I wrong!
Let’s start with a few fascinating facts about watermelon.
Watermelon from King Tut to Modern Times
- No one is sure exactly where or when the ancestor of our modern watermelon was first grown. However, archaeologists found that at least 5,000 years ago people in Libya ate that watermelon ancestor’s seeds.
- More than 4,000 years ago, Egyptians cultivated watermelon. Then, it was a rather bitter, yellowish fruit prized for its liquid. (King Tut’s tomb contains pictures of watermelon.)
- Somewhere between 400 BC and 500 AD, watermelon moved from Africa to the Mediterranean. References to watermelon in contemporaneous Jewish law texts indicate that people cultivated watermelon for sweetness and ate it for dessert.
- A Roman cookbook by Apicius includes a recipe for stewed melon (thought to be watermelon) with vinegar, honey and a seasoning called silphium, also called laserwort.
- By the 14th Century, watermelon was becoming redder and sweeter through domestication, as pictured in early Renaissance paintings and described in texts.
- Watermelons have grown in North America for hundreds of years. Native Americans consumed watermelon, possibly as early as the mid 1660s. The first cookbook by an American and printed in the US, American Cookery (1796), included a recipe for pickled watermelon rind.
- Watermelon has continued to be a popular fruit in the US, especially in the South.
- Today, China is by far the biggest producer of watermelon. That country is so smitten with watermelon that it has a watermelon-shaped 40,000+ square foot museum in Beijing devoted to the fruit. Other major producers (besides the U.S.) include Turkey, Iran, Brazil, and Egypt.
- Watermelons can be huge, tiny, or anywhere in between – The Guinness world’s record for the largest watermelon is a 350+ pounder grown by Chris Kent in Tennessee. The smallest member of the watermelon “family” is the pepquinos, about the size of a quarter. It is a cousin to the watermelon as is the cucumber.
- Watermelon is 90% water, so naturally it works well as a beverage. My favorite “weird watermelon drink” is watermelon beer. Manufacturers include one in southern Russia and a microbrewery in Huntsville, Alabama.
- Although watermelon “meat” tends to disintegrate when cooked, it can be warmed or grilled without losing its shape. Cooks in several cultures also use the rind in cooking.
- Watermelon curry is a particular specialty of the Indian state of Rajasthan. Numerous watermelon curry recipes use both the meat and rind of the fruit.
I decided to use Rajasthan watermelon curry as inspiration for a one-dish supper, by adding zucchini, bell pepper, cherry tomatoes, and tofu. If you like the concept but don’t want to go to the trouble of using a variety of spices to make the sauce, you can substitute pre-made curry powder.
This watermelon curry is spicy, but won’t leave you gasping for air. Just as all curries can vary from mild to hot, if you add more chili powder and cayenne than I specified or use hot curry powder, you can amp up the heat.
Watermelon and Vegetable Curry
Serves 4 as a main course with rice
Inspired by Watermelon Curry
A surprising and delicious use of watermelon. Try this light and refreshing dish next time you need a new main course.
- 4 pound seedless watermelon
- 1 medium zucchini, cut into 1" cubes
- 1 red, yellow or orange bell pepper, cut into 1" cubes
- 1 dry pint cherry tomatoes, halved About 8-10 ounces
- 7 ounces extra firm tofu (or firm with water pressed out, cut into 1" cubes See note about pressing tofu
- 1/4 cup canola or similar vegetable oil
- 1/2 teaspoon oregano (dried)
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin (ground)
- 1/2 teaspoon celery or sesame seeds
- 1 teaspoon chili powder
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne (ground red) pepper
- 1 teaspoon garlic, minced About 3 medium cloves
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4 teaspoon turmeric
- 1/2 lime, juiced
Cut off and discard the green outer rind of the watermelon. Then cut the white part of the rind off from the meat and cut both into pieces about 1” square, setting them aside in 2 separate bowls.
Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a large pan. Sauté the zucchini and pepper chunks for 7-8 minutes, then add the tomatoes and cook for another 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Set the vegetables aside in a large bowl, add another tablespoon of oil, and sauté the tofu cubes for about 5 minutes. Add the tofu to the cooked vegetable mixture.
Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil to the pan. After it heats, add the oregano, cumin, celery or sesame seeds, chili powder and cayenne. Stir the mixture on medium heat for 2-3 minutes until you begin to smell their aroma. Add the garlic and continue stirring for another 30-45 seconds. Then add the chunks of rind, salt, and turmeric. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally for about 6-8 minutes. The spices will adhere to the chunks and the formerly white rind will darken slightly.
Pour 1 cup of water into the pan, cover and reduce the heat to medium-low. Let the rind cook for about 10 minutes, until the pieces are tender enough for a fork to go through with mild resistance.
Uncover the pan and raise the heat to medium high. Add the tofu, vegetables, and watermelon chunks. Stir the mixture gently to combine and bring the liquid to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-high and continue cooking for about 5 minutes, stirring gently once or twice. Once the mixture is thoroughly heated and the chunks of red watermelon meat have begun to soften and glisten remove the pan from the heat. Finally, sprinkle juice from half a lime over the curry.
Serve over basmati or jasmine rice.
Note on tofu - To press the water out of firm tofu, first put a paper towel around the tofu block. Then place a plate on top, with a heavy can or other object on top. Leave it for about 30 minutes. Afterwards, remove the heavy object, plate, and paper towel. Finally, pat the tofu dry.
Disclosure – As originally posted in 2015, this post was sponsored by the National Watermelon Promotion Board. All opinions expressed and all editorial decisions are my own. Updates have changed the format and revised text, but have not changed the substance.