If you’ve walked into a supermarket, seen plump, shiny dates heaped high, and picked a few without a second thought, you’ve been doing it wrong all along.
Because unlike almost every other fruit available in the market, a date isn’t just a date – it’s one of a kind of date. Which means there’s a few questions to be asked, a few facts to chew on, before you make a selection. Is the skin translucent when you hold it up against the light? Are they sticky to the touch? Are they wrinkly? Yellow, green, red, brown? Chewy when you bite in, or crunchy? Honey-like?
A fruit that can differ in colour, size, texture and shape deserves quite some thought. But just as there are several different types, they all share one common trait – they’re satiatingly delicious.
Sweet and sticky, flaky and fleshy, chewy and caramel, dates are a symbol of hospitality and a staple during Ramadan, but they aren’t just relegated to heaving iftar tables – dates also make an appearance at everything from celebrations to sombre proceedings. They’re full of fibre, antioxidants and natural sugars, so your blood sugar doesn’t go on a roller coaster ride after every bite. With a long shelf life, this one-seeded treat is part of the UAE’s cultural fabric, offering up a taste of the country’s traditions.
Abu Dhabi, many millennia ago…
Over thousands and thousands of years, the main diet in the UAE has been the humble date – be it fresh, dry, mixed with nuts, flour or milk. Locally, the date palm, or phoenix dactylifera, dates back to 5110BC, with the oldest seeds found on Abu Dhabi’s Delma Island, according to the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. A no-fuss, resilient tree, you’d be hard pressed to drive a few metres without seeing a date tree even in the far reaches of the UAE.
Ahmed Al Jaffla, protocol manager and a senior presenter at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, said date trees are called nakhla in Arabic, and there are 1,500 types of dates around the GCC. But there are a few dates cultivated in the UAE that are at the top of this list owing to their superior taste and texture, he said – Kholas and Barhi, followed by Khenaizi and Khasab. They’re superior to the extent you can’t eat too many of these during the summer as they heat up the body – “you can have one or two, and a lot more during the winter,” Ahmed said.
Some varieties of dates have a lot of sugar in them, and some very less. Some varieties you can’t eat as the stone is larger than the flesh. “Which means you have to know the date very well before deciding on which ones to buy,” said Ahmed.
Water every 40 days
Date palms thrive in the soil in the GCC, with a requirement for less water. “They grow everywhere – near the sea, on a mountain, on sand. In the olden times, wells used to have saltwater, and the fact date palms thrived even in such an environment says a lot. Plant a coconut tree in this part of the world and if you don’t give it fresh water, it won’t produce any fruit. Plant a date palm and give it too much water, and it’ll actually die. We give it water every day for the first 40 days, then only twice a month after that.”
In fact, several varieties of date palms survive better deep in the desert than near the sea, where they won’t derive water from humidity. “Too much humidity and the fruit goes stale. A variety such as Kholas can fight that, but a lot of others can’t,” said Ahmed.
World War II and blocking of trade routes
Dates came into special prominence during World War II, Ahmed said, when the rice and flour that Emiratis were dependent on from India didn’t make it to the UAE after a lot of the ports were shut down.
“So Emiratis depended on two food items to survive – fish and dates. A huge pot of dates and milk, that’s all some Bedouins would eat. And our people learnt that we could survive on just that. Those who lived in the desert were lucky – they had milk and meat from livestock with their dates. Those who lived by the sea had just fish.”
Despite its beginnings in austerity, date consumption is a tradition that never died out. Except the milk was replaced with hot steaming cups of gahwa – Arabic coffee made with cardamom, rose water and saffron.
Never a ‘hungry house’
“Any Emirati house today will have a huge pot of dates out, whether you visit in the morning or late at night – and a kettle of gahwa that never runs out. You are served dates first, and after you eat as many as you want, you are served a sugar-less gahwa. If a home today doesn’t have a date in it, it’s referred to as a hungry house in Arabic.”
The UAE’s dates’ journey has seen a role reversal. “We didn’t have that many dates earlier, and we used to import from Iraq’s Basra, where they grew really good quality dates because they had the water. Dhows used to bring kilos of them to the UAE. Then Shaikh Zayed started planting the best quality dates and adding more – now the UAE has technology where they produce 10 date trees from one tree. Which means now we export to Iraq.”
“Dates helped me walk again”
Date planting is as much of a culture as date eating. Ahmed says older Emiratis will often ask the younger ones where they live, then give out recommendations for the exact variety of tree to grow there. Family members often call to enquire about how the trees are faring. “In the past they’d plant a tree and give it water once a week or twice a month – now you have the drips for water, and much more variety. In the olden times the dates that wouldn’t or couldn’t be consumed would go to the animals as a feed.”
Ahmed credits the longer lives of the older generation in the UAE to their love for the fruit. “My grandfather died at 130, and most of his diet consisted of dates. Even as an old man he suffered from neither high blood pressure nor high sugar levels. He would sit down next to a huge basket of dates and eat half of it, then go on a really long walk.”
Even today, the older generation in the UAE can’t live without dates, at least one or two every day for that energy. But with fruits from all over the world available in the UAE, along with chocolates and biscuits, Ahmed said that’s not the case with the younger crowd. So mothers now improvise – date cakes are a popular delicacy, where flour is roasted until it goes light brown, and poured on dates while it’s hot, so the juices seep out. “Date jams are a new thing, and so are juices. Dates are also made into a powder, sprinkled on salads and various mains too.”
Benefits abound, and not just flavour-wise. “When I was young and fell off a ladder and hurt my hip, my mother made a paste of dates, salt and turmeric and applied it where it hurt, and in three days I was walking again. Dates and salt are applied for joint pain even today.”
The date’s dietary and medicinal benefits accrue more worth when combined with the fact that every part of the date palm yields some product of value – the leaves to build houses, the core to build a fire, for ropes, the branches for brushes. “If you’re going to wash dishes and don’t have a sponge, all you need is to drive to the nearest date palm!”
How to make traditional date syrup at home
There’s no specific time to eat the fruit – it works as breakfast, at tea, as a midnight snack. Sealed dates can be stored for about four years. Ahmed recommends making a date syrup/paste that works well for a range of foods – in cakes, added to bread, mixed with milk and fed to babies, or rolled up and given to toddlers to nibble on.
So, want to make date syrup at home to keep it handy?
All you need is a colander and a jug. Fill your colander with the fresh dates, place a big jug underneath, place it in the sun, and soon you’ll have the juice dripping down through the heat of the sun.
Grow your very own date palm
Date palms can be male or female, with only the female trees bearing fruit. One male date palm can go on to pollinate several female trees.
Tony Al Saiegh, executive director of Emirati brand The Date Room, which retails home-grown dates, says dates in the UAE are more or less still cultivated as they were in the past. “A man still climbs the tree via a rope harness, and checks on the fruit till it starts forming. Dates are cleaned by hand, with no chemicals or preservatives added to them.”
Instead of growing each tree from seed, farms use sprouting branches from a date palm and plant them near to the mother tree, moving them later to their own land, Tony said.
Tony’s seen an escalating interest in the date palm over the past few years. “A lot of people are now trying to grow the date palm at their homes, and I mean … not just Arabs! It’s wonderful to see them going through the hassle for something that’s such an important part of the cultural fabric here. There’re communities on Facebook dedicated to it – people who haven’t seen palm trees before coming to Dubai, but they’re almost experts now.”
If you aim to plant and grow your own date palms, Tony says a quick google search doesn’t help. “You need a local expert. Growing differs widely from Al Ain to Ras Al Khaimah. You can’t underestimate the date palm. Diseases are easy to prevent, but extremely difficult to heal.”
How to choose the right variety?
Dates come in three colours: reds, such as Khenaizi; yellows, such as Kholas and Barhi; and greens such as Shishi. They are harvested in three stages: end of May (Helali and Ybri) end of June and July (Barhi and Kholas) and end of October (Khasab, Amber). They can be eaten at various stages of maturity: early green dates are called khalal, red-yellow dates are bisr, ripe, moist ones are rutab and the dried, wrinkled ones are called tamar. Dates can’t be eaten straight from the tree due to their bitter taste that cause itchy throats – there’s an exception to this, and it’s the Barhi variety. Moisture content drops as the fruit ripens.
There’s a type for everyone out there. For Ahmed, no variety can be compared to the Kholas – “its caramel sweetness makes for the best gifts”. But the Khenaizi almost achieves Kholas’ heights, lending itself to a perfect date honey, called dibs in Arabic. “We wait till fresh dates dry on its mother, we harvest and clean it, dry it in the sun, then pack it. When winter comes, we’ll unpack and eat them, or turn them into honey. We eat it as breakfast, exactly how you’d use honey.”
It’s so potent that during camel races, date honey is mixed with oats and barley and fed to camels for strength.
Like Ahmed, Tony from The Date Room swears by the Kholas variety and its caramel sweetness. “It’s almost creamy, and when stuffed with something salty like a nut, it’s nothing short of amazing. We have tourists buy Kholas straight after a taste, no questions asked – it’s so good. Not sugar sweet, but good sweet, like the Sukkari variety from Saudi.
“The Fardh is an especially popular one too, with a beautiful colour, smooth, solid skin, and less sweetness compared to the Kholas. For that in-between sweetness of Kholas and Fardh, go for Lulu.”
How to ensure the dates you buy are of a superior quality
Ahmed has a simple tip – place a date against the sun, and if you can see the stone, you know you’re buying some top-notch dates. “This little trick helps when you travel especially, and there’s nobody to consult and you’re worried about being tricked into paying a lot for low-quality dates.”
The difference between Saudi Arabia dates and UAE ones
Dates from Saudi Arabia are very popular in the UAE and the country produces a lot more dates than the UAE does, owing to its larger size, which means there’s a date season throughout the year somewhere in the country, as opposed to once a year in the UAE, Tony said.
Generally the UAE’s dates are smaller than Saudi ones, Tony said. “People also prefer larger dates as there’s more scope for stuffing. Though top-quality Grade A UAE dates are almost as big.” Every Saudi date has a UAE equivalent, so whether you like the dry texture or a juicy, honey-sweet one, you’ll find both a Saudi and UAE variety.
A guide to the 14 top date varieties in the UAE, in terms of taste and texture
Ready to set off on your own date journey? Here is what each date type offers in terms of taste, texture, colour, size and nutrition:
Wondering which variety of date is usually served with your cup of gahwa? It’s the humble kholas, with its mildly sweet, toffee flavour working as a perfect complement to a strong cup of Arabic coffee. Kholas is also eaten at all stages of maturity – from the unripe version balah, to the semi-ripe rhutab and the fully ripe tamr. You can recognise it by its smooth golden brown, semi-translucent skin. They are also a great source of minerals, fibre, sugar and energy. With a melt-in-the-mouth consistency, this variety tops popularity and quality charts, owing to its butter-caramel flavour.
Often described as the ‘real deal’, this variety is characterised by a dark maroon-red skin that finds huge popularity in the UAE due to its striking appearance and smooth, solid skin. Because it’s less sweet compared to the Kholas, the Fardh date can be enjoyed in a larger quantity.
With a sugar concentration that provides a balance between the uber-caramel sweetness of the Kholas and the mild sweetness of the Fardh, the luxurious Lulu variety is dark brown with a juicy texture and rounded shape. Because it is grown in the middle of the harvesting seasons, Lulu dates are much sought after. Tip: it is best eaten fresh.
Want that 4pm sugar fix? The Bumaan is highly recommended as a snack due to its mild sweetness and natural sugar content of glucose, sucrose and fructose. Grandmothers often endorse the Bumaan for upset stomachs.
Lightweight and sweet, Khadrawi also provides a good boost to your health, helping keep bones healthy with a high content of manganese, copper and selenium. Firm and oval, this date is brown in colour.
A date that’s the go-to choice for those watching their weight and sugar levels, the Razaiz is low in carbohydrates. A balance of flavours makes this medium-sized date a popular one.
Reddish black, medium-sized, juicy in texture and hence heavy in weight, the Khenaizi has a mild sweetness. The tree’s leaf is stronger than most varieties, and hence utilised as building material.
A variety that’s best eaten fresh straight from the tree, the Barhi’s unripe yellow and crunchy taste turns to brown quickly when ripe, with a chewy texture.
Longer dates, Ngal are two inches when fully grown, but if not harvested quickly they quickly go bad due to humidity.
Being grown exclusively in Madinah, in Saudi Arabia, means Ajwa is a revered variety in Islam and referred to as the ‘holy date’. Characterised by a mildly sweet flesh and a raisin-like texture, Ajwa’s skin is coloured darker, ranging from dark brown to black. A limited supply adds to the exclusivity of this variety.
With origins in Egypt, Khidri is a popular variety in the UAE, owing to its chewy texture and sweet taste akin to raisins, with a deep aftertaste. You can’t miss the Khidri variety – it stands out in shops with its larger size and dark maroon-red skin.
A variety that’s not just a UAE favourite but a global phenomenon, Medjool are also known as California-style dates, enjoying a huge fan base in the US and grown widely in various states there. With a deep brown skin and thick, amber-coloured flesh, its distinctive caramel flavour leaves a creamy, lingering aftertaste.
A Saudi Arabian native variety, these dates have a distinctive appearance due to their multi-hued exterior and oblong shape, with a firm yellow rim on top the colour of warm brown sugar. Its brown interior is soft and mildly sweet.
The ‘royal date’, Sokari delivers on its name – meaning sweet in Arabic – with crystallised sugars for a crisp, caramel bite rounded out by a mild sugary flesh. It is available in soft and hard varieties.
Information Courtesy: The Date Room and Bateel
UAE-based Executive Chef Mosleh Ismail has whipped up five date-based recipes inspired by Emirati cuisine for Gulf News readers. And here they are:
A much-loved Emirati dessert, Bitheeth is a treat made of ghee, flour and spices. While traditional recipes didn’t include nuts, modern versions incorporate everything from cornflakes to crushed nuts. This version calls for both almonds and pistachios.
2 cups, sifted flour (white or brown)
½ cup crushed pistachios
In a pan on medium heat, add the sifted flour and stir till golden brown. Remove the flour from the stove once golden and transfer it to a mixing bowl.
Add the butter and ghee to the bowl. Mix well.
Add the date paste to the mixture, and mix.
Transfer the mixture back to a pan and return to the stove on medium heat. Cook and stir until the mixture is well combined.
Add the saffron, cardamom powder, and fennel seeds to the dates’ mixture. Stir till mixed well. bitheeth is ready.
Move the mixture to a serving dish and sprinkle the crushed almonds and pistachios over. Many like to shape the mixture into small shapes, but don’t forget to roll them in crushed almonds and pistachios for that crunchy texture.
This traditional breakfast pudding made of flour and sugar gets an update and an extra (natural) dose of sweetness with the addition of dates. Rose water and saffron are added for an added layer of flavours.
This traditional breakfast pudding made of flour and sugar gets an update and an extra (natural) dose of sweetness with the addition of dates. Rose water and saffron are added for an enhanced layer of flavours.
Cover the dates in 2 litres of hot water and soak for a night, then mash and strain.
Heat the sugar on a medium flame until it starts to melt becomes a red caramel colour. Add the remaining water little at a time, as it will bubble up, mix well and increase the flame, till you get a thick syrup.
To a pan, add flour and mix with oil, then mix in the dates, sugar syrup, rose water, saffron and cardamom powder.
Cover the top with aluminium foil and place over a low flame to cook for 10 minutes. Serve.
A gahwa accompaniment, these fried doughy saffron bites are a popular dessert due to their spongy pancake-like texture. Just like the khabeesa, this traditional version gets a modern makeover with the addition of dates – this time in the form of syrup.
Soak the dates in water till softened (the time varies depending on the type of date), then strain and mash dates by hand till soft and watery.
Mix all the ingredients together to form a dough and leave at room temperature for two hours.
Cut the dough into small pieces and shallow-fry in oil. Serve with date syrup or shirah (sugar syrup).
These sesame seed-covered bites need no introduction. Fried to a golden crisp, the logaimat is one of the most popular delicacies in the UAE. Drenched in date syrup, eaten fresh and warm, desserts don’t come better than this.
Sesame seeds, to sprinkle
Soak the dates in water and sugar till softened (the time varies depending on the type of date), then strain and mash by hand till soft and watery.
Mix all ingredients together (except oil and dates syrup) and leave the batter to rest for two hours.
Shape into small balls, then fry. Remove from pan, mix with dates syrup and sprinkle with sesame seeds – serve hot.
Milk and date drink
A refreshing beverage for the UAE’s summer, this date drink calls for both milk and yogurt for some extra cooling. A pinch of cardamom does wonders for both taste and aroma.
A pinch of grounded cardamom
Blend all the ingredients together and serve in tall glasses. Various other fruits, nuts and spices, such as banana, almond and cinnamon can be added according to your preference – add ice cubes if desired.
Recipes Courtesy: Dubai World Trade Centre