Watermelon is the quintessential summer treat – sweet, succulent, and refreshing. During the scorching summer months, it quenches thirst, enlivens picnics and restaurant dishes, and cools us down as the heat wears on.
The majestic oblong fruit with its green rind and bright red juicy flesh freckled with black seeds could be considered the king of fruits! Watermelon has been a part of our culinary story for many millennia with its history dating back to over 5,000 years ago!
It’s all about the water…
Watermelon, as we know it today, did not exist thousands of years ago. The ancestor of the modern watermelon (known as the ur-watermelon) was cultivated in Africa before being introduced to the Mediterranean, Europe and beyond.
It is believed that watermelons were first cultivated about 5,000 years ago for their water content, when it was discovered that they could be stored in shaded areas to provide hydration during dry seasons.
Paintings, dated as early as 3,000-4,000 years ago, found in Egyptian tombs suggest that locals were farming these magnificent melons. The fruit portrayed in these paintings looked different than modern melons, indicating that they were likely bred over time to adjust their flavor, texture, and overall shape, while maintaining their high hydration capabilities.
Watermelon was first mentioned in ancient Greek texts around 4 BC, where the word ‘pepo’ is used to describe this waterfilled melon, with some evidence that they were roasted over fire or boiled.
In the ancient world, watermelons were used not only for hydration – they were also thought to be excellent diuretics and laxatives. The rinds were even prescribed to help ward off heatstroke in children by placing them on their foreheads.
Nowadays, watermelons are loved and consumed around the world. Today Greece is one the largest global producers and exporters of watermelons along with Spain, Mexico, Italy, Morocco, China, and the United States.
Watermelons didn’t start out sweet – they were actually bitter – but over time, and through selective breeding, they slowly became sweeter and redder, as the gene that determines sugar content is tied to the gene that codes for the color! Originally, they were a yellowish color, which can be found through specialty retailers even today.
Whether sweet or bitter, watermelons (and melons in general) are known for their incredible water content – approximately 92%, which makes them an amazing source for natural hydration!
Watermelons are also a great source of vitamins A and C, as well as dietary fiber and some key antioxidants, including lycopene, which is known to have anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory effects. It’s also good for heart health and may help in the prevention of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and macular degeneration.
Other benefits from watermelon include support for skin and hair health, as well as relief from muscle soreness, and can even help improve digestion.
Of course, before adding anything to your diet, always ask your doctor.
Karpouzi for me, Karpouzi for you
When I was a kid, one of my favorite things to do with my father in the summer was to travel to a town called Lesini, near the seaside in Messolonghi, which was about 90 minutes from our home in Thermo.
We would go in August, which also happens to be my birthday month, and gather all the watermelons (karpouzia in Greek) for our whole village – as many as we could fit in his truck. It was a special time for the two of us as we drove there, and when we arrived, I would run through the fields, weaving in between the melons like I was playing a game.
Before loading the truck, my father would knock on every melon, which I found interesting, but continued to play while he knocked and loaded or set aside each melon. After loading the truck, before leaving the field, my father would pull out his pocketknife, taking a watermelon and cutting all the way to ‘the heart’ of it, pulling out a perfect triangle. I asked him why he knocked on all the melons, and how he knew which melon to choose, and he told me that you had to knock on the watermelon, like you knock on a door – if it sounds hollow, then it was ready to eat and would be very sweet!
My mother, on the other hand, didn’t quite appreciate my love of watermelon, because she would dress me in white during the summer to abate the heat. My clothes never stayed white because I was like a little piglet in August, and would ravage all the watermelon I could find, staining my clothes pink! To be fair, my father called me his ‘gourounaki’ (little piggy), and said that because August was my birthday month, I could do whatever I wanted – and what I wanted was to eat all the watermelon!
My grandmother didn’t mind my watermelon obsession, because she would use the rinds to create her incredible glyka koutaliou (spoon desserts), which never lasted past September.
Watermelon for Everyone
Watermelons are very versatile when it comes to culinary applications, being used in both savory and sweet dishes. Beyond that, chefs have become very creative in utilizing the entire melon with the exception of the skin.
Pickled watermelon rinds have become a staple on menus to add great crunchy texture and light acidity. Compressed watermelon provides an intensely sweet and lightly bright flavor explosion when added to literally any dish, and can really perk up something that’s heavier and make it light.
The great thing about compressed watermelon is that you can infuse it with different flavors and herbs to really highlight what it is you enjoy!
On the island of Milos in Greece, they are known for their ‘Karpouzopita’, a watermelon pie made with honey and sesame seeds, and sometimes a touch of mizithra cheese (a sheep’s milk cheese).
People have become familiar with a watermelon and feta salad, because the sweet, crisp bite of the melon pairs perfectly with the creamy, tanginess of the Feta cheese … But why not add watermelon to your other summer salads? The sweetness of the watermelon goes perfectly with the tart yet sweet flavors of summer tomatoes.
Feeling spicy? Try grilling watermelon and adding a little hot pepper to it, squeeze a touch of lemon on there, drizzle with olive oil and enjoy! Or, make a watermelon gazpacho by blending it with any flavors you like.
You can even barbecue an entire watermelon, and carve it like you would a piece of meat!
Of course, there are countless ways to enjoy watermelon in sweet applications – but the best way is eating it as is!
What Angels Eat
Mark Twain proclaimed that tasting a watermelon was to know ‘what angels eat’. A slice of watermelon is perhaps the most iconic symbol of all things bright and fun in the sun for summer – now is the time to seize the bounty of the season and fully enjoy them in all of their magical melon-y wonder!
I want to know what you do with your watermelon in the summer? Send me your favorite recipes and pictures, and I’ll share my favorites on my social media – @ChefMariaLoi on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and Twitter!
Karpouzi Salata – Watermelon Salad
- 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar
- 1 tablespoon of Petimisi (grape must syrup) [optional, but highly suggested]
- ½ cup Loi Ladi Extra Virgin Olive Oil (or other extra virgin olive oil), plus more for drizzling
- salt and pepper to taste
- 6 cups organic baby spinach
- 4 cups seedless watermelon, cut into 1-2” chunks
- 4 oz. Greek feta cheese, cut into 1-2” pieces
- ½ cup organic pecans, lightly toasted
- ½ cup whole wheat breadsticks (or croutons)
- In a small mixing bowl, combine balsamic, petimesi, and olive oil, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Mix until emulsified.
- In a large serving bowl, combine spinach, watermelon, and feta; dress the salad with the dressing. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and toss to combine.
- Top with pecans and whole wheat breadsticks; drizzle with olive oil to finish and enjoy.
Chef’s Note: Tailor this recipe to your taste! Add or substitute different fruits, herbs, and/or nuts for your favorites!