One fortuitous discovery for me was that I learned I like dates. Wait!… make that I L-O-V-E dates! You see before sampling the fresh succulent varieties available to me in California, I associated dates with that desiccated stuff that ended up in my tapioca pudding and annoyingly clung to my teeth. It was sticky and sweet and as far as I could tell did not have much else going for it. Then I moved to San Francisco and for reasons, I can never explain I was drawn to trying the varieties at the farmers market and my culinary life has improved substantially. The closest experience I can compare this to is growing up believing Taco Bell equaled Mexican Food. Whoa! Its a wonder the heavens did not open up, and harps plucked when I sampled the real deal – that explosion of flavor, textures and color. I felt the same about those dates! Wow, why did I have to spend years eating only the dried, hardened stuff only to discover what an incredible treat the fresh stuff really was? The years I’ve wasted, and it only makes me wonder what other misconceptions I yet to overturn.
A Bit About Dates
Phoenix dactylifera — you know the Date Palm, is extensively cultivated for its edible sweet fruit. How extensively? Try to the tune of about 1500 varieties. When I learned that fact, my thought of one day sampling every variety took a serious hit. I realize I have my work cut out for me! Dates have a long storied past having been a staple in the Middle East for over a millennia. They are believed to have originated around the Persian Gulf, and have been cultivated as early as 4000 BC. Banish any thoughts that the palm tree is a small plant, a full grown beauty can exceed 80 feet or 25 meters. They take 4 to 7 years after planted to bear fruit and then can produce a viable harvest for the next 7 to 10 years. Not the most efficient of plants from a growers perspective as not all the fruit on a tree ripens at the same time so multiple harvests are required. In later times, this fruit was spread around South and South West Asia, northern Africa, and Spain and Italy. Dates were introduced into Mexico and California by the Spaniards by 1765, in the Missions.
For that critical date sweet talk, knowing the three main cultivar groups is helpful:
- soft (Barhee, Halawy, Khadrawy, Medjool)
- semi-dry (e.g. Dayri, Deglet Noor, Zahidi)
- dry (e.g. Thoory)
More sweet talk to consider to describe your date. Dates ripen in four stages, which are known worldwide by their Arabic names kimri (unripe), khalal (full-size, crunchy), rutab (ripe, soft), tamr (ripe, sun-dried). Depending on the variety, the date may be high in natural sugars. As the date fruit dries, the sugars concentrate in the dense, moist flesh, ultimately forming sugar crystals on the date’s surface. If a date has formed sugar crystals, it is usually less than ideal to eat, as the flesh will be dry and leathery. Because dates contain little water, their size and flavors do not diminish upon drying.
Kinds of Dates, just to whet your appetite
Amir Hajj or ‘Amer Hajj’ — from Iraq, these are soft with a thin skin and thick flesh, sometimes called “the visitor’s date” because it is a delicacy served to guests.
Barhi or (barhee) (from Arabic barh, “a hot wind”) — these small fellas are nearly cylindrical, light amber to dark brown when ripe; soft, with thick extremely soft flesh and rich flavour. One of the few varieties that are good in the khalal stage when they are yellow (like a fresh grape as opposed to dry, like a raisin). Some date lovers like to eat these lovelies frozen like hard candy.
Deglet Noor (Arabic: ‘translucent’ or ‘date of light’) — so named because the center appears light or golden when held up to the sun. This is a leading date in Algeria, the USA, and Tunisia – it accounts for 75% of California’s crop. It is semi-dry and not very sweet with a delicate and distinctive flavor.
Empress — developed by the DaVall Family in Indio California USA from a seedling of ‘Thoory’. It is large, and is softer and sweeter than ‘Thoory’ with a distinctive coloring with a light tan top half and brown bottom half.
Halawy (Halawi) (Arabic: ‘sweet’) — these are soft, and extremely sweet, small to medium in size. With their caramel- and molasses-like flavor and pronounced sweetness, halawy, which were introduced from Iraq in 1902, are considered by many growers to have a classic date taste.
Khadrawy (Arabic: ‘green’) — a cultivar favored in the Middle East, it is a soft, very dark date. Usually reddish brown and slightly wrinkled, these dates have a good amount of flesh and a mild caramel flavor. Khalasah (Arabic: ‘quintessence’) — one of the most famous palm cultivars in Saudi Arabia, famous for its sweetness level that suits most people. Its fruit is called ‘Khlas’.
Khastawi (Khusatawi, Kustawy) — this is the leading soft date in Iraq; it is syrupy and small in size, prized for dessert.
Medjool or (Mujhoolah) — from Morocco, also grown in the USA, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Palestinian territories and Israel is a large, sweet and succulent date with a golden brown to brown black skin and a rich tasting flesh with hints of molasses and caramel. One of my favorites, and if you want to stuff a date with goat cheese – look no further.
Mozafati — from Iran, and often named “Bam (Mozafati) dates”, after a city in that province. They are medium sized dark, soft and sweet dates. It is best for fresh consumption, because of its long shelf life.
Sayer (Sayir) (Arabic: ‘common’) — these dates are dark orange-brown, of medium size, soft and syrupy. Sekkeri — (literaly. sugary) Dark brown skin; distinctly sweet and soft flesh, from Saudi Arabia.
Thoory (Thuri) – the “bull’s date” popular in Algeria, this dry date is brown-red or brown -yellow when cured with a bluish bloom and very wrinkled skin. Its flesh is sometimes hard and brittle but the flavour described as sweet and nutty. This date keeps well so is popular with travelers.
Zahidi — these medium sized, oblong, light golden-brown semi-dry dates are very sugary, and sold as soft, medium-hard and hard. They have little flesh in proportion to their large pit. They are often processed into date crystals and other food products.
I bolded the names of some of the dates that I recognized, and have eaten here in California so I’m going to go out on a limb and say you can probably find them in the US. Native Food and Wine also has a great post on this dessert candy.
Top Ten Dates Producers [source: wikipedia]
- Saudi Arabia
- United Arab Emirates
Dates + Food
Dates have got to be some of the most versatile of foods. They’re great in their raw form, perfect snack food. Pitted and stuffed with goat cheese and nuts -they’re a sophisticated and simple snack. Let them participate in the current porcine craze with a bit of bacon wrapped around them for that perfect combination of sweet savory. You get the idea.
In addition to the fruit, other parts of the date palm are also edible: young date leaves are cooked and eaten as a vegetable, as is the terminal bud or heart of the palm. As it may have been suspected, eating anything called the “heart” of plant, kills it. The finely ground seeds are mixed with flour to extend its usefulness in making bread. The flowers of the date palm are also edible. The female flowers are used in such diverse dishes as salads or mixed with dried fish as a condiment. Saveur Magazine has some great date ideas from date shakes, to date pie, to bacon wrapped dates with almonds to date honey.
I created the following jam and its quickly become a family favorite mostly because of its versatility.
My (OysterCulture’s) Date Jam/Spread
Makes 6 pint jars
2 (13oz) containers of date paste¹
2 – 3 Thai peppers, finely minced – depending on taste²
1 c brown sugar, honey or other sweetener of choice
2 c water
1/2 c apple cider vinegar
1 cinnamon stick
½ tsp crushed cardamon seeds
¼ tsp star anise
½ tsp salt
In a heavy duty 2 -3 quart pot combine all ingredients and let simmer for about 20 minutes until the contents, except for the cinnamon stick, is incorporated and resembles apple sauce. You not can and it keeps well in the refrigerator, or you can follow canning instructions for extended preservation.
¹You can use fresh dates, you just need to pit them and run them through a food processor. I was lazy and have found these packets of date paste a great substitute.
² Two chilies added little heat but a nice depth to the flavor. People are surprised to find them an ingredient, especially heat adverse folks. Adjust as you like.
How I like to use it:
- Always good on toast
- Great with cheese (chevre)
- Nice on oatmeal
- Lovely in Greek yogurt
- Awesome on pork