Watermelon, not just a refreshing summer snack

The watermelon is a versatile ingredient for use in sweet and savoury dishes.
The watermelon is a versatile ingredient for use in sweet and savoury dishes. / DANIEL MALDONADO
  • Versatile. This popular summer fruit combines well with several other foods such as goat's cheese, tomatoes, meats and various herbs

Watermelon (sandía in Spanish) and summer are one and the same in Spain. There is no more refreshing fruit than this immense melon (in 2013, a farmer from Tennessee, USA, grew what is considered to be the largest watermelon in the world to date, weighing 159 kilos). This member of the cucurbit family, scientifically called Citrullus lanatus, like other species in the family it originates from desert climates, in this case the deserts of north-west Africa. Wild varieties are still grown there and its cultivation has been able to be dated from seeds found in archaeological sites 4,000 years ago.

The wild melons are far removed from the modern image of this fruit, both in terms of appearance and, above all, in terms of taste and colour of the pulp. When tasting wild melons like the tuera (the tuera, Citrullus colocynthis, is a relative of the sangria, a cucurbit from desert climates of an intense bitterness), botanist Harry Paris, member of the Agricultural Research Organisation (ARO), asked himself the reason why the inhabitants of the African arid zones had decided to cultivate it. In his article 'Origin and emergence of the sweet dessert watermelon' (www., he argues a strong hypothesis: watermelon was originally grown because of its high water content, 93 per cent, the highest of all fruits, and its ability to maintain this reserve for long periods.

According to Paris, the sweet watermelon we know today dates back 2,000 years and is the product of agricultural selection, a process that continues today.

In works such as Tacuinum Sanitatis, a medieval book on healthy eating, it is recommended as a dessert, and includes pictorial representations showing it was already quite similar to the one we eat today.

During selection it was noted that the depth of the red colour was directly linked to the sweetness of the fruit. Lycopene, which is present in tomatoes, is responsible for the pigmentation and gives the first clue as to why both fruits work so well together.

The culinary tradition in Spain is to eat watermelon as a dessert or refreshing snack with one exception. Candied watermelon peel, a legacy of the Arabs, is still included in selections of preserved fruits. A recipe on how to do this can be found online ( It is a very easy recipe: just remove the green rind, cut it into chunks and place in a bowl of cold water with 100ml of alcohol per litre. Cook over a low heat with the same weight of sugar as rinds and add a few drops of green food colouring. After approximately 45 minutes all the water should have evaporated and you'll be left with the rinds covered with sugar.

Watermelon is one of the staple foods of the Zero Waste (Cero Residuos) movement, because it can be used in its entirety. Although seedless watermelons are becoming increasingly popular, in the Middle East the seeds are roasted, salted and spiced to be eaten as an aperitif. And in the USA, where the fruit is symbolic of the South, the first cookbook ever published there, American Cookery, by Amelia Simmons (1796) includes a recipe for pickled watermelon rinds. To make it, remove the flesh and the green part and chop it up. Put the rind in a large glass container and let it rest for 12 hours covered with six parts water to one part salt. Remove, rinse and drain, and finally, heat a saucepan containing two cups of vinegar, four cups of white sugar, one cinnamon stick, four cloves and one spoonful of peppercorns. Cook over a low heat for 10 minutes, remove the cinnamon sticks and pour the still-warm vinegar into wide-mouthed jars where the pieces of rind have been placed, covering them with liquid up to the rim. Close the jars hermetically, sterilise them and wait at least a week to start consuming the pickle. It goes very well with roasted meats and barbecues, and the taste is reminiscent of pears when you bite into them.

In Sicily where large, elongated watermelons are grown, 'gelu di muluni', is a traditional recipe which dates back to the cuisine of the mid-18th century.

Fake steak

The recent surge of veganism has prompted another use for watermelon, as fake steak. To make it all you have to do is cut the melon into thick chunks, season with a dry, barbecue or spice mix and leave on a rack in the fridge for a few hours. The grainy texture will become fleshier. To complement the slightly sweet taste, serve it with a feta salad.

Niki Segnit, in his Encyclopedia of Flavours, says that watermelon goes well with cinnamon, chili, coriander, mint, lime, rosemary, goat cheese, tomato, lime, oysters, melon, cucumber and mint. Make a note to add it to salads. It also goes well with pork. The Food Pairing system, based on coincidences in the chemical composition of the food, adds other combinations: duck, Sencha tea (for iced tea drinks), mango, beans and hazelnuts. The rest depends on the imagination.