by Kate Heyhoe
When the announcement came that Egyptian President Mubarak had finally stepped down (in February 2011), crowds celebrated by throwing candies and dates everywhere, including into one reporter's vehicle. Celebrating with dates? Really? The image stuck in my mind; it's not something practiced in the Western world.
Dates are an iconic part of Middle Eastern life, which includes North Africa, and most Westerners know as little about them as they do the countries of North Africa. So it seems appropriate to get a taste of the region and its culture by exploring the esteemed date in history and recipes. Here's a complete Guide to Dates, with info on date varieties and cooking with dates, and their role from ancient to modern times.
Look at a map, and you'll see how easy it was for Arabs to cross from the Middle East into Africa. Some researchers believe ancient Iraq to be the birthplace of the date palm (and possibly the site of the Garden of Eden). The trade-loving Phoenicians are credited with spreading the plant from the Fertile Crescent to and across North Africa, which today consists of Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Western Sahara, and Morocco.
Dates became a popular food because they could travel easily without spoilage, sustaining travelers and nomadic Bedouins on long treks across the desert. For similar reasons, dates were easily transported out of the Middle East and into the hands of European kitchens, and later, to California's Coachella Valley, where they became a commercial crop. Dates are also prized for their natural sweetness and nutrition, and the trees themselves are versatile construction materials.
The Middle East may evoke images of vast deserts but part of the land was once a fertile valley, and the people there have contributed much to civilization over the centuries. In this region, hunters became farmers about 12,000 years ago. They were the first to cultivate wheat, and later added barley, pistachios, figs, pomegranates—and dates. They discovered the process of fermentation and used it to make beer and leaven bread, and dates were among the foods fermented into wine. After the ancient Sumerians (who lived in present-day Iraq) created the barter system, trade blossomed. Spices, in particular, made Middle Eastern traders wealthy, and changed the tastes of people throughout Europe, Asia, and by extension, the Americas. As early as 700 A.D. the Arab diet was spreading to other lands.
Non-meat eating Muslims survived on dates, goat's milk, nuts, and foods that could be transported easily. In Persia (now present-day Iran), staples were fresh fruits, rice, duck, and other meats. Turkey's Ottoman Empire developed its own distinctive foods, which over time were embraced throughout the Middle East, including sweet pastries made of paper-thin filo dough and dense, sweet coffee. These cultures contributed to the foundation of Middle Eastern cuisine, which further evolved as Arab traders returned home with exotic new spices from the Orient. Turmeric, cumin, garlic, and other seasonings arrived from India; cloves, peppercorns, and allspice came from the Spice Islands. Foods from other parts of the globe arrived as well: okra from Africa; yogurt from Russia; dumplings from the Mongols; and tomatoes from the New World, via the Moors of Spain.
Today's North Africans are of mainly Middle Eastern descent, and Islam and Arabic are typically the official religion and language. Because of this, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Western Sahara and Morocco are considered to be a part of the Middle East, despite their geographic location, and the foods they eat are dominated by their Arabic heritage, with sprinkles of other cultures mixed in. Libya, for instance, was under Italian control for a few decades, and the French, Greeks, and Spanish have at times added their own flavorprints to North African nations.
Where there were once lush, verdant valleys, sand and salt deserts now dominate. Though Iran's seasons are distinctive, with cold winters and hot summers, the Arabian Peninsula is hot and dry year-round (except for humid coastal areas). Most of North Africa is desert, including fertile areas once fed by the Nile. And drought is typically the norm. (One town in Libya received its last recorded rainfall in 1998.) It's true that olive trees and citrus crops thrive in Mediterranean climates, and so are featured in Moroccan cuisine. But in most places, crops must be heavily irrigated to survive. Except for the date palm.
Date palms (Phoenix Dactylifora) do best in hot, dry climates with no rain, and just a small amount of water for their roots. "The date palm must have its head in heaven but its feet in hell," goes an Arabic saying. It's an ideal oasis plant, where water at an oasis is fed from underground, not from rain. Commercial date farms may use some irrigation; but as with camels, a little water goes a long way.
The odd thing about date fruit is that if there's any humidity in the air, the fruit won't ripen. Which is why all the majestic date palms lining picturesque streets in places like Los Angeles, Nice and coastal towns are merely eye-candy; the air is too moist to yield ripe fruits.
Sperm (or pollen) donors are popular in the date industry. Female trees need male pollen to procreate, but insects (nature's most industrious pollen carriers) don't like date pollen. In areas where male and female trees are closely planted, the wind will carry the pollen. But in large commercial groves where oasis-fed land is scarce, growers instead plant a single male tree for every fifty females, and the growers hand-pollinate the females. And like sperm banks, pollen from vigorous male trees is sold in vials to ambitious cultivators.
Besides their fruit value, date palms are versatile trees of life. Date palm fronds are made into sandals, baskets, rope, roofs, and bricks, while the trunks provide lumber, furniture and fuel. Traveling Bedouins create instant shelters using leaves and trunks to shade and protect them from desert winds. Pharaohs' tombs depict date palm leaves as emblems of longevity, and pyramid workers were paid in dates. Ancients used dates to sweeten beer and make wine, and today's dates are made into vinegar, sweet pickles and chutneys, baked goods and pastes, while the seeds are roasted as snacks. In the arid desert where fresh foods can be hard to come by, the mineral-packed, nutritious date is truly a god's gift.
Date palms also play a role in many religious ceremonies. The holy books of Muslims, Christians and Jews all celebrate the date in various passages. Did you know that the palm fronds used in the Catholic observance of Palm Sunday are traditionally harvested from the date palm? The date palm is one of the Four Species in the Jewish prayers at Sukkot. Mohammed advised Muslims to "cherish your father's sister, the [date] palm," and Muslims break their fasts during Ramadan by eating a date.
Wild date pits, from some 50,000 years ago, have been found in archeological sites in Iraq. Date cultivation happened as early as 3000 B.C., and the fruit was eaten fresh or dried. In Mesopotamia, date syrup was the preferred sweetener over honey. The Romans stuffed dates with nuts and spices, coated them with honey, and baked them as sweet treats. In southern India, Marco Polo proclaimed the date wine there to be more powerful than grape wine. In Elizabethan England, well-to-do families stocked up on dates for puddings, and in fourteenth century France, dates were expensive delicacies. Only after 1830, when France conquered Algeria, did the common Frenchman get to experience the sweet fruit.
Spanish missionaries planted dates in North America in the eighteenth century, but commercial date farming didn't occur until 1902. California's Coachella Valley adds little to the world market of dates, but it does produce 99 percent of the United States supply. The area sits twenty feet below sea level with dry hot air most of the year, and the groves are irrigated with water from the Colorado River. Every year, Indio (California's date capital) hosts a ten-day date festival.
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This page modified April 2011
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