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As we come to the end of the date harvest, many varieties of this delicious and healthy fruit are cheap and plentiful in the market. Along the streets and in gardens all over Kuwait you can see date palms hanging heavy with their golden bundles of fruit that are ready to be picked. Loaded with minerals, vitamins, carbohydrates and natural sugar that converts into instant energy, dates are one of nature’s most perfect foods.
Dates have always been a staple ingredient in the diet of people in this part of the world. In days gone by, bedouins used to exist, for the most part, on only a handful of dates a day, washed down with camel’s milk. Meat and rice were generally reserved for entertaining guests and for holidays and other special occasions. Kuwaiti pearl divers also consumed no more than a few dates and some glasses of strong black tea during their long, grueling working hours at sea from dawn to dusk.
As a non-perishable food for desert travellers, dried dates were invaluable. As a precious commodity, dates were transported and traded by Kuwaiti sailing ships traveling to India and Africa, thus serving as the basis for thriving international business empires long before the discovery of oil.
Many in the West are only familiar with the date in its dried form, often packed in small plastic trays and sold as a special food at Christmas time. But it is the fresh fruit with its combination of textures, consistencies and varied tastes that is truly an unequaled natural delicacy.
At some of the stalls in the fruit and vegetable section of the old Mubarakiya market you’ll find mountains of fresh dates piled high on big platters and packed into styrofoam crates. Exit this area and you’ll come to a small alley known as Souk Tamar, the Date Market, which is the oldest surviving section of the souk.
Except for a couple of small shops that sold dried goods and spices, in this part of the market there used to be one date stall next to the other, all with glaring naked light bulbs suspended over the sweet and sticky stock. Now there are less date stalls in Souk Tamar and more shops selling clothes, fast food, and other merchandise.
“In the old days everyone used to come here to buy their dates. Now they can buy them in the supermarket or other convenient places, so business is bad and date shops are closing,” says one of the vendors.
Nevertheless, the date vendors still cheerfully offer plenty of free samples and are always willing to explain about the different types of dates. More than 600 types of dates are grown in the region, but there are usually just about a dozen favorite varieties available in the market. Most of the dates are either from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, or Iran. The most popular are berhi and khlas which currently sell for KD 1.5 per kilo.
Some of the date varieties, like the red-colored khanezi and the large pale yellow sakari are relatively easy to recognise. The name sakari comes from the Arabic word for sugar and these Saudi dates do indeed have a very sugary flavor. When dried they have a hard, chewy consistency and an even more sugary taste. The berhi variety, on the other hand, has a distinctly honey-like flavor and a smooth, melt-in-your-mouth texture when fully ripe.
In this part of the world most date consumers are very partial to dates that are grown in their region. Kuwaitis tend to favor the khlas variety of dates which originally come from the Al Hasa oasis in Saudi Arabia and berhi from the Mandalli area of Iraq. Adding to their popularity is the fact that both varieties can be eaten in all stages of ripeness. Both varieties are now widely grown here.
One of the date vendors points out different platters of fresh dates at varying stages of ripeness. At each stage the dates are known by a different name.
“As dates ripen, they become softer and darker in color and more sweet. When still hard and crunchy and either all yellow or all red, depending upon the variety, they are known as khalaal. When the bottom half of the fruit is soft and the top is still hard, they’re called munasif, which comes from the Arabic word nus, meaning half,” he explains.
It is at this half-half stage, with its contrasting texture and flavor, that many people enjoy fresh dates the most. When dates are completely ripe they’re called ratab, which in Arabic means moist or with humidity. Dried ripe dates are called tamr.
In Kuwait it has always been a tradition for those who own date palms to share their harvest with family, neighbours, and friends. In the old days the date harvest was eagerly awaited since dates were practically the only fruits grown in Kuwait. Nowadays, despite the variety and abundance of fresh fruits from all over the world, a gift of fresh dates is still enjoyed and appreciated.
Usually, dates for the family’s own use are sorted into three batches: some to be dried, some to be frozen, and some to be eaten right away. Mature dates are washed before being placed on large trays and left to dry in the sun, usually on the rooftop. Some people like to flavor their dates by sprinkling them with roasted sesame and anise seeds. When the dates are dry they are tightly packed into airtight tins.
Fresh dates can be stored in the refrigerator for up to several weeks. If left at room temperature they will gradually ripen. Once fully ripe, however, they could go bad if left standing outside. You can freeze dates that are fully ripe and use them later to make smoothies, for baking, to add to hot or cold cereal, or for eating on their own.
In most Kuwaiti households, dates are served along with the main course at lunchtime, much as bread or cheese accompanies a meal in some other parts of the world. People also like to eat fresh or dried dates dipped in tahina or plain yoghurt. Local housewives as well as bakeries and confectionary stores produce many delicious sweets made with dates.
With their high sugar content, dates are fattening, but they’re incredibly good for you. High in vitamins A and B6, folic acid, potassium, iron, calcium, thiamine, riboflavin, copper, phosphorous, and magnesium, eating a few dates is like taking a multivitamin. They’re also high in dietary fiber.
Studies have shown that the minerals contained in dates help maintain proper functioning of skeletal structures, tissues, body fluids, and vital organs like the heart and brain. In addition, dates are said to protect the stomach and intestinal tract from parasites and bacteria.
So take advantage of living in a date growing area and try these tasty and healthy fresh fruits of the desert. Sample some of the many different varieties and find your own favorite.
“In the old days everyone used to come here to buy their dates. Now they can buy them in the supermarket or other convenient places, so business is bad and date shops are closing,” says one of the vendors. Nevertheless, the date vendors still cheerfully offer plenty of free samples and are always willing to explain about the different types of dates. More than 600 types of dates are grown in the region, but there are usually just about a dozen favorite varieties available in the market.
By Claudia Farkas Al Rashoud
Special to the Arab Times