|There are so many different types of date, prepared in different ways, to choose from...|
Dates are the fruit of the date palm, which may well have originated in the area now known as Iraq, and evidence of its presence there has been found as early as 6000 BC, and in the Indus Valley around 7000 BC, but it has been cultivated for so long and has spread so rapidly to every continent (except Antarctica) that it's impossible to be sure. Why did the date palm spread so fast? Because it's a truly amazing tree: not only does it bear exceptionally sweet and healthy fruits but the seeds can be used for oil and animal feed, the sap for alcoholic drinks and palm syrup, the leaves and stripped fruit clusters for brooms, thatch and woven products; even fuel. The wood is used in building and even the young leaves and the flowers are edible. I wouldn't be surprised if whole civilizations hadn't sprung up around the date palm!
Types of Date: There are over 400 types of date grown on Saudi Arabia alone, never mind the rest of the world, so this is a list of the most popular. You have probably heard of Deglet Nour and Medjool dates before, but look out for: Khadrawi (or Hadrawi), Mactoumi, Monief, Silaj, Sukkari (the sweetest in Saudi), Khidri, Khalas, Barhi (yellow and crunchy), Sekki (yellow at one end, brown at the other) and Ajwa (a sweet, blackish date that only grows in Medina, believed to have been eaten by the Prophet Mohammed). Dates vary in price from the cheaper Tunisian Deglet Nour (the sort that is often glucose-coated and comes in those long boxes), through to the dates like Sekki and Sukkari from the Middle East which can cost around £10 a kilo, to Ajwa dates from Medina, which I am told are priceless.
As well as the different varieties of dates, you can also buy dates fresh in supermarkets; these are often the large, plump and sticky Medjool dates. Fresh dates are not so chewy and the moisture content tones down their sweetness, making them perfect in fruit salads and desserts. At the other end of the spectrum, there are the very dried dates, which are as sweet as toffees, have an almost caramel-like flavour and are very chewy. In between these two extremes lie the "fresh" dates you can get at Middle Eastern and Asian food stores, especially in and around the time of Ramadan. (These are the sort of dates in the picture above.) They are a little chewier and slightly less moist than the supermarket fresh dates. They come cling-wrapped in kilo or half-kilo trays, clear plastic boxes or lidded cardboard boxes, and you can pay anything from £5-ish to upwards of £10 a kilo for them. Make sure you examine them carefully before buying, as they can sour in warm conditions or if they have been lying around in the shop for too long. To avoid this, buy from popular shops with a fast turnover.
When you get your dates home, whatever kind they are, always look out for tiny brown or yellowish dots inside, around the stone, as these are the eggs of worms which live inside the fruit. As they got there first, best leave them to it and don't eat those dates! Some batches of dates seem to have quite a few like this, others none; take it as an indication that fewer pesticides have been used when you find the eggs, and with any luck there will also be some egg-free dates in there that you can eat.
Nutrition and Health Benefits: Dates are full of natural sugars (ripe dates are 80% sugar, in fact), which make them superb for supplying energy before running or doing other exercise or when "opening" and "closing" the Ramadan fast. Before fasting, they provide energy and nutrients, and after fasting they restore the nervous system and their fibre content and sweetness helps prevent overeating. They are also great travelling and packed lunch companions, provided you have something to get the stickiness off your hands afterwards. Traditionally, dates are eaten by women in the last month of pregnancy, and a study has now shown that women who ate six dates a day during their pregnancies had a much easier labour!
Dates have a high mineral content, and are a good source of potassium. They also contain boron, copper, cobalt, fluorine, magnesium, manganese, selenium and zinc. Dates are also about 2.5% protein too. They are 8% fibre, which is good news for digestive health. B vitamins especially B5 and 6 also feature in the nutritional content of dates, plus they are a source of calcium and iron.
Naturally, with this range of nutrients, dates are going to have health benefits: Dates are said to prevent abdominal cancers, regulate the digestion and can also aid the nervous system because of their potassium and Vitamin B content. In the Middle East, dates have traditionally been used to treat sore throats, colds and fevers, to increase lactation (milk flow) in nursing mothers and for fertility.
Culinary Uses: Apart from just eating them straight, dates can be stuffed with nuts or marzipan, or coated in chocolate. Traditionally, they were used in desserts, drinks and bread. Date paste is often used in desserts and smoothies today, and of course dates have also found their way into European cookery as a baking ingredient. Date syrup makes a great sugar substitute and mixed with tahini (sesame seed butter) is delicious as a sweet spread. Date recipes from this blog:
raw vegan millionaire's shortbread
our version of the Nak'd Bar
chocolate date and walnut squares
stuffed baked apples
date and walnut cake
ginger and date squares ...to name but a few!