(Phoenix dactylifera— Family Palmaceae)
datte (French). Dattel (German), dattero (Italian), dátil (Spanish), tamara (Portuguese), daddel (Danish), dadel (Swedish), taateli (Finnish), finik (Russian), daktyl (Polish), datulja (Serbo-Croat), curmala (Romanian), fourma (Bulgarian), ksoormias (Greek), hurma (Turkish), tamar (Hebrew), balah (Arabic), khurma (Persian/Hindi), hai zao (Chinese), natsumeyashinomi (Japanese)
Dates are the fruits of the dozen or so feather-palms which grow in sub-tropical and desert areas throughout North Africa, the Arab states, California, and Australia.
Dates are one of the world’s oldest cultivated fruits. It is speculated that the Babylonians grew them as long as 8,000 years ago, and records certainly show that they were cultivated over 5,000 years ago.
In early times, the date palm
was regarded as the “tree of life”; and every part was used. It is said that it had over 800 uses.
The buds and the fruits were eaten, dried, or ground into flour. The sap was drunk. The fibers were woven; and the stones, or seeds, were used as fuel or fodder for donkeys and camels. Even today, dates are still known as the “bread of the desert”.
The ancient Greeks and Romans were also fond of dates and imported the best from “Jericho”. They often combined them with meat in their cooking. Since sugar was almost unknown, the fruit was used as a sweetener. Because the Chinese could not grow date palms in their climate, they imported the fruit from Persia since the time of the T’ang dynasty (618-907 CE).
The date palm never stops growing, and can exceed 100 feet in height; but usually, after 100 years or so, it becomes so tall that it just falls over.
However, commercial growers usually cut them down at half that size because of the difficulty in managing them since they flower and fruit only at the top.
Like all palms, the date palm has a single growth point at the tip and, if removed, kills the tree. This is often done to serve up the delicacy, hearts of palm.
The tree grows a new section each year, comprising of fresh leaves which emerge above the previous year’s section. The leaves live for an average of five years.
The tree, therefore, consists of about five leafy sections on top of a stack of sections whose leaves have died. This stack rises higher and higher from the ground.
The trees will be either male or female, with only the female producing fruit. Each male tree can provide enough pollen for 100 or more females. The trees are usually wind-pollinated, but cultivated trees are helped along.
The fruits are produced in large bunches of over twenty pounds in weight, and may contain as many as 1,000 dates. An average yield is about 100 pounds of fruit from each tree every year, but good trees will produce two or three times that amount.
Most dates are still grown in their region of origin, with the biggest producers being Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. However, large quantities are also grown in the North African countries, India, Pakistan, the drier parts of the American tropics, and in the hotter parts of the US, especially Arizona and California. In the main producing countries, there are thirty to forty main varieties grown, but that represents only a small portion of the diversity that is actually available.
Dates are extremely nutritious, containing more natural sugar than any other fruit. The fruits contain protein, Vitamin A, and some of the B vitamins; but it is not a perfectly balanced food. In spite of this, the Arabs have remained in good health, balancing out any deficiencies by combining them with other foods.
Dates also yield a substantial amount of dietary fiber and potassium, as well as many other valuable vitamins and minerals. Being high in potassium, they can be used, instead of bananas, by those using diuretics that rob the system of mineral.
However, they are a most unusual fruit as they contain almost no Vitamin C. Dates can be eaten raw or cooked.
In North Africa, dates are used in tagines (fragrant stews), curries and sauces. They have a particular affinity for cheese, and, when served together, make a delightful combination.
Until a few years ago, only dried dates were available outside their native lands; but now, fresh dates are exported. Before that time, dates were often smoked to hasten uniform ripening which, not only made them sweeter, but helped to preserve them enough to travel, as fresh dates do not travel well.
Iraqi dates are sold in blocks, while Tunisian dates are exported in boxes with the central stem still in place. Of the more than 350 varieties of dates available, only a few are exported, and these are seldom sold according to variety.
Date growers, including those in the US, describe the stages of ripening and drying the fruit with Arabic terms. This occurs when the fruit has reached full size and taken on its characteristic colour.
Red or orange Deglet Noor
Dull yellow Halawi and
Rich brown for Medjool
These are then said to be at the “khalal” stage. After picking comes the “rutab” stage, when it softens, darkens, and begins to shrink. The final “tamar” stage is when the fruit is fully cured and ready for packing.
There are three main types of date: soft, hard, and semi-dry. The most popular in the West and nearly all grown in the US are of the third type. They are less sweet than the other types, but more aromatic and distinctive.
The yellow dates are usually considered to be soft, while the red ones are dry. The most popular variety is the large, golden brown deglet noor (“date of light”) from North Africa and Israel.
Two Iraqi varieties are now grown in the US: the very sweet halawi and the green khadrawi. The fragrant khaleseh is also available, and is recognized by its orange-brown skin.
The finest dates are the large crinkly-skinned medjool from Egypt and California, whose flesh is intensely mellow and sweet. The dry variety, Thuri, is grown in southern California.
Halawi is also grown in Israel and considered to be the best of the wet varieties. In Iraq, the principal semi-dry variety is the less succulent zahidi. The main Moroccan variety, Medjool (meaning “unknown”), is also cultivated in California.
Dried dates, but not those of the finest varieties, are sometimes sold as “pitted” dates.
Soft dates have a higher moisture content, a mild flavour, and relatively little sugar. They are grown in the Middle East, mainly for eating fresh, although some are dried and compressed into blocks. Soft dates, especially those from Iraq, are mostly traded within the Middle East, but sometimes go further afield, especially during the fasting month of Ramadan in Indonesia.
Hard dates, also called bread or camel dates, are dry and, even when fresh, but when dried further, become extremely hard and intensely sweet. They may be left whole or ground into flour. Either way, they keep for years and are the staple food of the Arab world, especially the nomads.
is the Malay name for the fruit of some small stemless palms which grow in parts of Southeast Asia. The best is Zalaccia edulis, which is pear-shaped, but smaller than a pear. It has a distinctive shiny brown scaly skin, which peels off crisply to reveal a few white segments tightly packed and containing seeds. The flesh is slightly dry and waxy, but with a pleasant, slightly acidic, flavour.
Some date varieties include the following:
is an excellent dry date of Iraq, with a rich nutty flavour. The flesh at the tip is translucent amber, shading to a creamy-white at the stalk.
is the prime date of Arabia, valued for its delicate and rich flavour. The ripening date develops its sweetness at an early stage, making it a popular fresh date, which also cures well.
Deglet Noor (see above) is an attractive date originating in Tunisia, and has become popular in the US as well as dominating the European trade. It is very sweet and mild in flavour and has translucent flesh. Its principal sugar is sucrose unlike most other varieties whose sucrose has inverted to glucose and fructose at maturity.
is a staple date of Oman. A good keeper, it is reddish-brown at the fresh stage and has a moderate sweetness, but rather a bland flavour.
Gundila is one of the dominant and premium varieties in the Sudan. It is large, and just seven of them were the breakfast ration of a schoolchild in the 1960s.
Halawi/Halawy (see above) is a very sweet, soft, pale-coloured date from Mesopotamia. It is the major commercial date for export, mainly because it is not well-favoured in its own country.
Hilali is an Arabian date available fresh only at the very end of the season. It has an excellent flavour, but does not cure well so must be eaten fresh.
Khadrawi/Khadrawy (see above) is a heavy cropping, soft, premium fruit popular because of its rich flavour.
is the most famous date of Arabia, originating in the Hofuf oasi, but now widely cultivated. The fruit has a caramel flavour when cured, but is also excellent when fresh. The name means ‘quintessence’, which aptly describes the fruit.
Khustawi is one of the premier dates of Iraq, having a rich sweet flavour. Although the yield is low, it has a good keeping qualitiy.
is a large maroon red date which originates from Egypt and has a firm chewy texture. It is medium sweet with a mild flavour that hints of raisins.
Medjool/Medjul (see above) is a deep red date with thick flesh, little fiber, and a rich flavour. It is found widespread commercially.
Mactoum is a small, nicely flavoured date originating in Iraq down the Gulf. It has a good balance of sweetness and astringency in the semi-ripe stage.
Neghal is the earliest ripening date of Oman and UAE (United Arab Emirates). It crops heavily and is mostly eaten fresh from May onwards.
Yatimeh is a popular North African date eaten fresh as well as cured. It is soft and syrupy, but after drying is firm yet tender and has a pronounced flavour. The syrup sometimes will drip from the ripe bunches on the tree.
Zahidi is the principal commercial date of Iraq and sold in three stages of maturity from soft to dry. The palm is prolific and easy to maintain. The fruit has a high sugar content so is used as an industrial source of the sweetener as well.
Date palm flowers is an interesting food item found in markets of the date-producing countries. The flowers appear in January and February. The male flowers are only of a minor interest, appearing only as sources of pollen rather than food. The enclosed sheath or spadix should be intact for this purpose, as well as for using as a vegetable. It is common for farmers to reduce the number of flowers on the female tree in order to improve the size and quality of the date crop. For consumption, the tough sheath is removed from the cramped mass of flower buds, which are used in salads or pounded together to use in other dishes. They have no distinct flavour and only a slight astringency.
Date plums (Diospyros lotus – Family Ebenaceae)
are not related to the date palm, but are close relatives of the common persimmon.
The fruit grows from the Mediterranean as far east as Japan and Korea. It is not eaten in Japan, however, but grown for its ornamental value. Because it has grown as a cultivated ornamental plant for so long, its origins cannot be validated; but it has been present in the Mediterranean for a very long time.
It is one of the several fruits reputed to have been the ‘lotus’ of the so-called lotus-eaters of Homer. The fruit is cherry-sized and yellowish brown to blue-black in colour, and is simultaneously pleasantly sweet and sour. The flavour is somewhat like certain varieties of dates, and thus its name. Most fruits contain numerous brown, flattened seeds; but a seedless variety is grown in China. Asians sometimes dry the fruit for winter use.
See more on Dates