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Exploring Dates: Facts, Nutrition, Recipes, and Trivia

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Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

Palm dates are one of the oldest cultivated fruit trees on earth.

Palm dates are one of the oldest cultivated fruit trees on earth.

Did Dates Grow in Paradise?

The date palm is a magnificent tree, a lifeform revered in the Middle East as an “ancient of days.” Food historians believe it has been cultivated for more than 7,000 years in the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. This place, Phoenicia, gives the fruit its botanical name, phoenix dactylifera. (In the language of the Greeks dactylifera means “finger bearing,” a nod to the finger-like shape of the dates.)

Babylonian tablets describe the date palm; it appears in drawings that predate the written word. There is evidence that the date palm was also present in the Valley of the Nile—paintings of them can be found in the tombs of the Pharaohs.

Sturdy date palm trees in Northern Africa

Sturdy date palm trees in Northern Africa

A Sacred Fruit of Nourishment and Comfort

Followers of Islam believe that the angel Gabriel offered dates to Adam, to feed and comfort him when he was exiled from the Garden of Eden.

“Thou are created from the same substance as this palm tree which henceforth shall nourish you.”

Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, and the most sacred. During this period, Muslims commemorate and reflect on the time when Allah gave them the first chapters of the Quran. This is a time of prayer and abstinence from pleasure. Fasting begins each day at sunrise and lasts until sunset. After the sun goes down, an evening meal, the iftar is consumed. But first, the person breaking their fast takes in water and eats a few dates.

When one of you is fasting, he should break his fast with dates; but if he cannot get any, then (he should break his fast) with water, for water is purifying.

— the Prophet Muhammad

The Tree of Life

To say that the fruit of the date palm is important to the people of the Middle East is a vast understatement. Arab people say that there are as many uses for the date palm as there are days of the year. Perhaps there aren’t actually 365 ways to use the tree and its fruit, but all parts of the plant have a purpose.

  • Trunk: Date palm trunks are not harvested until or unless a tree dies or becomes so aged that it no longer produces fruit (trees can live to 150 years). The wood is not of high quality but has great tensile strength so it is perfectly suited for timbers, beams, and girders. In many parts of the world, trunks are hollowed out and used as water conduits.
  • Midribs: This is the portion of the frond attached to the main stem. Typically the leaves that make up the frond are stripped away and a rib remains. These can be used as fuel, beaten and turned into fibers (for brooms), or for making crates or furniture.
  • Leaves: Mature palm trees attain a height of 70 to 75 feet, and the leaves are equally large, spanning 13 to 20 feet. In Pakistan, the fiber from the leaves is dyed and then wrapped around reed fibers to create baskets. Fronds are also used to weave mats, and Egyptian artisans use the wood to create furniture.
  • Fruit: That’s an obvious one, but the abundance of the date should not be underplayed. One tree can produce up to 300 pounds of dates each year. Some of them are soft and candy-like; other strains are dry, a definite “survival food” for the hot arid climate.
  • Seeds: Even the pits of the date are used; they are soaked to soften them and then ground up to be used as animal feed.
  • Medicine: In ancient times dates were thought to be valuable in easing labor pains and post-partum bleeding. Today we recognize them as an excellent antioxidant and source of fiber, protein, and iron.
  • Landscape: The date palm is a stunning specimen. It does extremely in a hot, dry climate, boldly standing in full sun where other plants would perish.

The World's Top 10 Producers of Dates

Data from 2017, UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO)

CountryAmount (in tonnes)

Egypt

1,542,111

Saudi Arabia

1,224,192

Iran

1,202,200

Algeria

1,058,559

Iraq

618,818

Pakistan

440,606

Sudan

439,335

Oman

360,917

UAE

344,714

Tunisia

260,000

Most Popular Date Varieties

  • Barhi: Small, round, plump, and fragile. Even when dried they remain soft and taste of honey and caramel.
  • Dayri (sometimes dherri): Slender fruits with a skin that, as it ripens, turns from red to brown to ebony. Their flavor is reminiscent of rich, dark molasses.
  • Deglet Noor: Thought to provide the ultimate true date flavor.
  • Medjool (also medjul): The largest of all dates with delicate skin. They are very moist and chewy.

Trivia

  • Arab people believe that the date palm has human qualities—sever the head, and it will die. Sever a limb and a replacement will not grow. And, the crown (like a human head) is covered with thick foliage.
  • Greek architects modeled their Ionic columns on the stately, erect form of the date palm trunk.
  • Coachella Valley (southeast of Los Angeles, California) is considered the date capital of America.
Israeli couscous dried fruit salad

Israeli couscous dried fruit salad

Israeli Couscous Dried Fruit Salad

Couscous is a durum wheat pasta—most of us recognize it as the fluffy grains of tabbouleh or the side dish of Moroccan dinners. Israeli (aka pearl) couscous is different, toothier in a barley sort of way.

But it's not just size that sets Israeli couscous from its smaller cousin. Pearl couscous is toasted and so has a deeper, nutty flavor. This Israeli couscous dried fruit salad is tangy with lemon juice, crunchy with sliced almonds, and slightly sweet with bits of apricots, figs, and (of course) dates. It's a hearty side dish or could be served as a meal all on its own.

Smoky seared cod and lemon-date sauce

Smoky seared cod and lemon-date sauce

Smoky Seared Cod With Lemon-Date Sauce

Blue Apron is an American meal-kit service but they also provide healthy, easy-to-prepare recipes on their website. That's where I found this seared cod with lemon-date sauce. Cod is a mild-tasting flaky fish; it's the one you probably get when you order fish and chips.

But, instead of a plunge in the deep fryer, Blue Apron coats it with a smoked paprika spice blend and then adds pops of flavor with a tangy-sweet sauce of shallot, garlic, and dates.

Braised chicken with dates and Moroccan spices

Braised chicken with dates and Moroccan spices

Braised Chicken With Dates and Moroccan Spices

Chicken is simmered to tender perfection with a North African blend of flavors to make this braised chicken with dates. Ginger, cinnamon, and cayenne pepper deliver the heat; turmeric and cumin lend earthy, savory flavors; and lemon and cilantro offer a contrasting citrus tang. But the star of the show is the dates that thicken the sauce and bring sweet richness.

Date bars

Date bars

Date Bars

This recipe comes from the file of my dear sister Florence who passed away in 1993. Mom was the bread and pie baker in our family, but it was my sis (26 years my senior) who was the champion cookie baker.

Ingredients

  • 3 cups cut-up dates
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 3/4 cup butter, softened
  • 1 cup light brown sugar
  • 1 3/4 cups sifted flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 cups rolled oats

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
  2. Combine the dates, granulated sugar, and water in a medium-sized saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly until thick, about 10 minutes. Cool.
  3. Next, cream the butter and brown sugar in a large mixing bowl. Stir in the flour, soda, and salt. Finally, stir in the rolled oats and mix thoroughly.
  4. Press half of the mixture in greased and floured 13x9-inch pan. Spread with the cooled filling. Crumble the remaining flour/oat mixture over the date filling.
  5. Bake until lightly browned, about 25 to 30 minutes. While warm, cut into bars and remove from pan.
English sticky toffee pudding

English sticky toffee pudding

English Sticky Toffee Pudding

One would think that a dessert this amazingly tasty, moist, rich, and perfect was created centuries ago, perhaps by Benedictine monks cloistered away in a monastery. But no, English sticky toffee pudding was developed by the proprietors of Sharrow Bay Country House Hotel in northwest England in the 1970s. Thankfully, this dessert, sweetened with plump dates and drenched in luscious dark caramel sauce, is baked in individual servings.

Sources

© 2021 Linda Lum

Comments

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on January 21, 2021:

Hello Sp Greaney. I'm so happy to hear from you. Like you, the medjool dates are the ones most easy to find in my part of the world. I'm glad to introduce you to a new way of using dates.

Sp Greaney from Ireland on January 21, 2021:

Medjool dates are the ones that are sold here in most stores. I didn't realize that there where other varieties. They are tasty but I know some people who cannot stand them.

I have never tried adding them to a main dish but the recipe here, Smoky Seared Cod With Lemon-Date Sauce looks really nice and is easy enough to make.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on January 19, 2021:

Hi Shauna, gosh I've missed hearing from you.

First, I thought I had all the recipes you could ever make with a date, but yours is new to me, and (I'm sure) it's amazing. (Your recipes and the recipes you've shared with me from your relatives proves that).

Our dear MizB also mentioned a date nut candy recipe from high school HomeEc. I actually have that recipe (I think it's the same), and so maybe I should amend this article to include that one as well.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on January 19, 2021:

Linda, I had no idea there are several varieties of dates. The videos you include in this article are informative and breath-taking. The baskets are so beautiful! And climbing a palm tree in bare feet!? Wow!

There are a few varieties of date palms here in Florida - mostly South Florida. Can you believe I never realized that they actually produce dates? Silly me!

My now-deceased mother-in-law had a wonderful recipe for what she called date ice-box cookies. When she gave me the recipe, she told me I was the only daughter-in-law she'd given it to. What an honor! They're a bit laborious to make (make a dough, roll it out, spread it with the cooked date mixture, then roll them up jelly roll style and freeze) but they're so easy and convenient to bake. Simply take the rolls out of the freezer, slice, and bake!

At Christmastime I try to make a batch of those and my mom's recipe for Hungarian Nut Sticks. Both are yummy and are an homage to both of my son's grandmothers.

Very interesting article, Sis. I knew not the history of the date before reading this. Excellent!

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on January 18, 2021:

Adrienne, I can't imagine why anyone would feel the need to add sugar to dates. They are by themselves sweetly addictive. Thank you so much for stopping by and leaving a comment.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on January 18, 2021:

MizB, I have that recipe! I would be happy over-the-top-of-the-moon to send it to you since you have been so kind and generous to share your gluten-free recipes with me.

I'm working through those recipes BTW; I feel the need to do a test bake before I "go live" in a baking-over-the-phone with my Godson. Thanks so much for your help on this. He means the world to me.

Adrienne Farricelli on January 18, 2021:

I love dates and are quite addicted to them. I only look for the ones without any added sugars, the natural Medjool dates which are sold as a fresh fruit. So large and delicious! And they have lots of nutrients too!

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on January 18, 2021:

Linda, what a nice writeup about dates. I first encountered dates in a high school home economics class. Our teacher, Miss Jean, (that's what she liked to be called) showed us how to make Date Nut Candy with dates, powdered sugar, butter and nuts as the main ingredients. I liked it so much that I made some at home for the family. Then I ate so much of it I made myself sick. It was at least a half century before I touched another date. Now I just love them again, especially the Medjool dates from the local health food store. I lost my recipes from home ec in a move, or I would love to make that candy again using Medjools this time. Thanks for the memories. BTW, I sent you another gluten-free recipe. This one was for cupcakes.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on January 18, 2021:

Wow, Eric you're a lucky guy. They are just so naturally sweet, it's like candy. Thanks for your comments.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on January 18, 2021:

I just love dates and we have them here as they grow here. I never met a date I did not like. My wife gets these dried out ones for cooking but I soak them in water. Even the water tastes good.Great history and recipes as always.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on January 18, 2021:

Denise, I've never had an opportunity to taste-test dates. Lucky you. Thank you for your kind words.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on January 18, 2021:

I didn't know that the dates could have different flavors until I went to the farmer's market to buy dates and they asked me which kind. I stood there speechless so the man gave me a taste test of the three he had. Wonderful. I ended up buying the one that had a sort of caramel taste. It was awesome. Thanks for the research. It was so interesting.

Blessings,

Denise

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on January 18, 2021:

Peggy, I think the original recipe contained walnuts, but she always omitted them because they bothered Daddy's dentures. Thanks for stopping by.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 18, 2021:

I learned much about dates and the date trees by reading your article. I grew up eating a date bar that sounds similar to the one your sister made, except it also contains nuts. It is wonderful that almost all parts of the tree are utilized.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on January 18, 2021:

Thank you Flourish. Have a great week!

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on January 18, 2021:

Bill, you're starting to sound like my husband. (He's not a fan either). Thanks for the kind words. Happy Monday back atcha.

FlourishAnyway from USA on January 18, 2021:

That pudding sounds good. I learned a lot about dates from your well researched article. Very well done!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on January 18, 2021:

I think I'll let you explore the taste of dates, but I did enjoy the history and other information about them. One does not have to taste a date to appreciate it, true? :) Happy Monday, my friend!

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on January 18, 2021:

Manatita, I sincerely appreciate your instruction; I did not intend to offend. I have slightly changed the wording in the paragraph to which you refer--I hope this helps. Blessings to you.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on January 18, 2021:

Hello Mary, it's good to see you here. As I said to Ann, my husband doesn't care for dried fruits so I don't cook with them (very often), but Beth and I will be making a batch of those date bars soon. They bring back wonderful memories of my childhood.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on January 18, 2021:

Pamela, I was happy to find that nothing goes to waste on the date palm tree.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on January 18, 2021:

Ann, I must confess that I've never had sticky toffee pudding. Mr. Carb isn't a fan of dried fruits, but it was fun writing this. Thanks for your kind words.

manatita44 from london on January 18, 2021:

Your writing is super-excellent as usual and a joy to read.

We must be careful about the use of words that creates division. I do not know that Muslims see Allah as 'their' God. If unsure, ask a devout Muslim for an explanation. Misunderstandings can be a terrible thing, even if the intention is to do good. Peace.

Mary Wickison from Brazil on January 18, 2021:

Hi Linda,

It's been some time since I've had dates. I do like them. I never knew sticky toffee pudding (which I love) had them in it.

In fact, I've never cooked with them, but it's good to know about these recipes.

Have a wonderful week.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on January 18, 2021:

The history of dates and the use of each part of the tree is really fascinating. I didn't know the history went back before the written word.

The recipes all look good as well. I always think of my mother when I see dates as she loved them. Thanks for all this excellent information, Linda. This is an excellent article. Have a great week!

Ann Carr from SW England on January 18, 2021:

I didn't realise that sticky toffee pudding had dates in it! I don't like dates; for me, they are too rich, the texture is challenging, and I don't like really chewy things!

Having said that, this is an excellent, informative and interesting hub, Linda. Well, of course it is, because you wrote it! The extra details and background always make your articles rich and satisfy our appetites for good quality.

Hope you're keeping safe and that your week goes well.

Ann