It’s a date!
A friend brought along fresh dates to snack on the other evening and said they were as good as chocolate – high praise indeed. They were fabulous and had come all the way from California; my friend believes they grow the best she’s found. Food miles aside, I had to agree with her. I’m sure this will offend many other places that might lay claim to having the best dates, but speaks to the wide appeal of this fruit. Fresh dates have the perfect balance of flavour and sticky chewiness that really hits the palate ‘sweet spot’. And they are a fascinating fruit to boot.
The date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) is one of the few plants to thrive in the hot dry conditions of the Middle East and North Africa where it has been cultivated for at least 6000 years. Known as ‘the bread of the desert’ and ‘cake for the poor’, its fruit has long provided a local staple. It’s not surprising that date palms and hold religious significance for Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This ancient fruit denotes victory and peace and is included in Palm Sunday festivities celebrating Jesus’ triumphant return to Jerusalem. It is commonly the first food consumed for Iftar, after the day’s fasting during Ramadan. There must be nothing better than dates after a day of hunger, much like a cool drink after walking through the desert.
There are many varieties of dates in three main categories based on water content. The dates I know as ‘fresh’ are also known as soft or Medjool dates. Then there are semi-dry varieties such as Deglet Noor, and dry dates like Thoory. You’re probably more familiar with the dried version that is much easier to export around the world in this shelf-stable form. In early times dried dates sustained Arab sailors during their long voyages of trade and discovery.
Photo: Ian Hofstetter, The Low GI Vegetarian Cookbook (Hachette Australia)
As well as being a key ingredient in the popular sticky date pudding, and date and nut bread Americans enjoy over the holidays (try Anneka’s recipe below), dried dates are very versatile and can be added to cakes, loaves muffins, cookies and scones (the English kind traditionally eaten with jam and cream). They’re also delicious added to breakfast cereal, muesli and in a nutty trail mix. I’ve even been known to throw a few on a peanut butter sandwich-yum. They also provide a lovely balance of flavours in savoury dishes together with meat and spices in tagines and other slow-cooked casseroles. Fresh dates are so good they need no accompaniment, although they enhance a cheese platter beautifully.
I was amazed at the myriad of ingredients formed from the humble date: a syrup (dibs), which is used as a sweetener similar to honey, powdered sugar, paste, sparkling juice, vinegar and wine; not to mention the creative stuffings used inside stoned (pitted) dates including cream cheese, nuts, candied citrus peel or marzipan. A healthy oil can even be pressed from the seed. What a clever fruit.
Dates are sweet, so it’s not surprising to learn they contain 70% sugars: a varying combination of sucrose, fructose and glucose, depending on the variety. All are low GI. They are high in fibre and also contain vitamins A, thiamine, niacin and riboflavin, and some iron, magnesium, calcium and potassium. They even contain selenium thought to be important for reducing cancer risk, and fluorine for strong teeth that resist decay – both elements are not found in many foods.
Dates are also high in natural sorbitol (a sugar alcohol or polyol) which makes them excellent for promoting bowel regularity, although those with an irritable bowel and sensitive to FODMAPS (certain sugars that can be poorly absorbed by the body) may want to give them a miss (poor them). The rest of us can make a date with dates over this festive season and rejoice in how sweet life has been to us this year. Season’s Greetings!