As a city boy, I haven’t encountered horses many times in my life. My grandparents in the village had one, but it died when I was a little kid. The ones I remember seeing in some Greek towns-including mine- were nice, big horses carrying around tourists on a carriage. Most times the horses were just resting, eating some snack while waiting for new clients. People were staring at them trying not to approach too much and disturb them. In such cases you stare the horse but you don’t pay much attention to its food. Once, I looked also the food and i saw a kind of ‘plant material’. It was unknown to me. Some more knowledgeable friends told me at some point that those were carob pods.
Ceratonia siliqua a.k.a. Carob is a tree that belongs to the pea family. It is native to the regions watered by the Mediterranean, including its islands. The tree produces a legume-like fruit that is called carob pod. This, similar to other peas has a pulp that contains seeds in its interior. These seeds gave rise to a myth for which carob is renowned.
Particularly, the ‘carat’ (not to be confused with ‘karat’ that measures gold purity) is a unit of mass equal exactly to 0.200 grams used to measure gemstones, like diamonds. For instance, a 100-carat diamond weights 20 grams. Carat comes from the Greek word ‘keration (κεράτιον)’ that means carob seed. In the ancient years people used to establish a value for an item by weighting it using some weight standards, for instance different types of peas. The myth declares that carob seeds have exactly the same weight -of 0.200 grams each- therefore gave the name to the unit carat. However, this is not exactly as true as remarkable it sounds and carob seeds do not have the same weight (1). But still, their weight distributions center on 0.200 grams and that is enough for me to appreciate this myth.
Ignoring the seeds, the carob pulp can be ripen and eaten by some mammals, including humans. Otherwise, it can be milled to a kind of powder or flour. It has been promoted as a ‘healthy’ alternative to cocoa powder or chocolate. This is due to the fact that carob compared to cocoa contains no caffeine and limited sodium and thus it is a good substitute for people with high blood pressure. Additionally, it has almost zero fat (cocoa contains ≈ 15%) and has naturally a sweet taste; therefore carob recipes ask for no or limited amount of extra sugar. Carob powder is mainly carbohydrates (≈ 90%). Among them, ≈ 50% are simple sugars (that’s why its sweet taste) and the rest 40% comprises dietary fibers. Similarly to cocoa, carob is also a good source of antioxidants, mainly gallic acid and flavonoids. Though, the healthy claims of carob are maybe a bit overemphasized since minimally processed cocoa powder has also remarkable health benefits.
How can you enjoy carob? You can eat it like a horse does, that means chewing the pulps. Alternatively, you can use the powder and make a carob cake or a hot drink similarly to hot chocolate. Unfortunately carob powder is rare to find and you need to know particular places where to get it.
Carob cake recipe (for a 20 cm-diameter bottom-removable baking pan):
- Combine all the powders in a bowl.
- Add the liquids and mix with a spatula until a homogeneous batter that flows slightly.
- Add the raisins, the chopped almonds, and the baking powder and mix again.
- Layer the walls and the bottom surface of the baking pan with a bit of butter.
- Pour the mixture into the baking pan and bake in a pre-heated oven, at 180°C for 1 hour.
Either way you eat carob, be ready to feel a particular and strong taste. It has some of its flavors but it is not like chocolate. Because of the strong taste and the fibrous composition, it’s not possible to eat much of it. In that regard, whenever you might bake a carob cake, have willing friends to share it!
Next time that happens to be in the south Europe or north Africa, look around for some carob trees, pick some pods and if at some point you encounter a horse that might look dangerous, you know how to become friends!
(1) Turnbull et al. Seed size variability: from carob to carats. Biol Lett. (2006);2(3):397-400