Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.
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.
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.
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- 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
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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.
- 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
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 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
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.
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.
- 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
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
- Combine the dates, granulated sugar, and water in a medium-sized saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly until thick, about 10 minutes. Cool.
- 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.
- 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.
- Bake until lightly browned, about 25 to 30 minutes. While warm, cut into bars and remove from pan.
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.
© 2021 Linda Lum