Culturally, dates have long played a key role in Middle Eastern cuisine and rituals surrounding hospitality. They’re particularly prevalent during Ramadan, when they’re often given as gifts and eaten to break the fast. They also play an important part in the agriculture of the region: there are more than 400 varieties of date in the UAE and date production makes up the majority of fruit and vegetable farming in the UAE. In 2005, the figures were as high as 60 percent.
The date’s key role in Middle Eastern culture is celebrated at the annual Liwa Date Festival: the eighth annual festival took place on July 12-18, coinciding with the start of Ramadan. This year’s festival was also a record-breaker: a 112kg bunch set a new record for the largest bunch presented since the festival began.
Despite this, the vast majority of dates available to buy in Dubai are grown in Saudi Arabia. Tina Memic, head of retail at Bateel, one of Dubai’s best-known purveyors of dates, explains that the Middle Eastern climate is one of the best in the world for date cultivation. Yet she tells us that humidity levels are the most important aspect when growing the crops, and low humidity is required to grow larger dates.
‘The humidity level during summer in the UAE, for instance, is high, which makes it difficult to grow large dates. Therefore UAE dates usually are smaller than those from KSA.’ But the very best date you can buy, she says, is the wanan variety, which is also the bestseller at Bateel’s stores in Dubai.
Here, we learn more about these and some of the other 400 varieties of dates the region has to offer.
Almarina Red to dark brown in colour, these are long, large, wrinkly dates that offer a hefty mouthful. They feature thick, dry skin, which can be peeled if preferred. Almarina dates are less fleshy and have a thick wall of dry, chewy inner fibres around the seed, which makes it easy to extract. The taste can be overwhelmingly sweet.
Fard Small and round in shape, with very thin skin that cracks easily to let the stickiness out, fard dates are light reddish-brown in colour. They’re toffee-sweet and have a pleasant aftertaste that wafts up the back of your throat to your nose, producing a warm, almost burnt flavour.
Khidri This variety originates from Egypt, but is commonly grown in the Al Qassim and Al Sudair regions of Saudi Arabia. The khidri are large, with dark maroon-red skin and a sweet, chewy, flesh that melts in the mouth and produces a flavour that’s suggestive of raisins, with a deep aftertaste.
Kholas The name of this variety means ‘enough’ in Arabic; they originate from the Al Qasim and Al Kharj regions in Saudi Arabia. They are most commonly eaten with coffee. Average-sized and dark reddish-brown in colour, they are moist and sticky, with a hearty flavour. The taste, Tina says, is ‘delicate and toffee-flavoured but not too sweet’, like ‘a natural caramel’. Very fleshy, they melt warmly in the mouth.
Madjoul This name means ‘unknown’ in Arabic, although the origin of the variety is known to be Morocco. Dark brown in colour, the Madjoul is a medium-sized date. It’s firm and very chewy, with a hard, dry skin, with very distinct wrinkles and a moderately sweet, succulent flavour, with a lingering creaminess. According to Tina, this variety is the most popular throughout the rest of the world, and is known as ‘the king of dates’.
Sheeshe These bi-coloured beauties are more pleasing to the eye than some. Sheeshe dates are usually a yellowy light-brown shade and have a thick skin. Slightly dry in texture, they have a subtle flavour and are perfect for those who don’t like things too sweet.
Sokari ‘It’s no coincidence that the word “sokari” sounds like “sugar”,’ explains Tina. ‘In Arabic, it means “the sweet one”.’ This variety is popular in the region, with the fruit often referred to as ‘royal dates’. They are cone-shaped, with pronounced creases in their yellow skin and firm, faintly resilient, mildly sweet flesh – crystallised sugars give them a crisp bite.
Segai This variety originates from Saudi Arabia, and has historically been grown in the region around Riyadh. These medium-sized dates are unusual in both taste and texture, explains Tina. ‘Segai dates are characterised by their multicoloured hues. At the top, they feature a yellow band, firm and very sweet like brown sugar, while the base is brown, soft and mildly sweet. This variety is so special that it has a natural twist to it: crispy on top and soft on the bottom.
Wanan This variety is long and cone-shaped, with dark, wrinkled skin and soft, mildly sweet flesh. Its sweetness, Tina suggests, makes it a perfect variety for stuffing with fillings such as ginger, or as an accompaniment for coffee.
A date a day: the health benefits
• Dates are nutritionally rich in vitamins and minerals and contain natural sugars (sucrose, glucose and fructose), which make them an excellent source of energy. They can give you a great boost after recovering from illness or after you’ve been fasting. Culturally, fasters also eat dates during the pre-dawn meal, to help them maintain their energy levels throughout the day.
• Dates are also low in simple carbohydrates, which can lead to obesity and diabetes.
• A great source of natural fibre, dates do wonders for your digestive system and intestinal movement. This is another reason why they’re popular during the fasting month, when eating less or changing your routine can throw a spanner in the works.
• Dates are packed with minerals such as potassium, which promotes a healthy nervous system; iron,which is essential for blood formation; calcium for healthy bones and teeth; and magnesium, which is good for your nerves, muscles and brain power.
• They are high in antioxidants, great for neutralising the free radicals that cause disease.
• Dates are rich in vitamin A, which supports good vision; vitamin C, which strengthens your immune system; and B-complexes that help fight infections and generally keep you healthy.
• They contain 20 different types of amino acids.
• Fresh and dried dates have the same health benefits, but the dried ones have more calories.
Ripe for the picking Unlike the vast majority of fruits and vegetables, dates can be eaten at different stages of ripeness, and each stage has an entirely different character in terms of taste and appearance.
Khalal is the earliest stage of ripening. These dates have firm green skin and, due to the high tannin content, they are usually very bitter. Bessar is the second stage and describes a date that has a bright yellow or red skin. Although the sugar content in bessar dates is higher, the tannin levels continue to be quite high, leading to the fruit’s slightly bitter aftertaste.
Next, rotab dates, often referred to as fresh dates, are the first stage of ripeness at which dates can realistically be eaten. At this stage, the fruit begins to soften, and the tannins are broken down, making the fruit juicier and sweeter. However, the texture retains some firmness and crunch. Finally, Tamar describes the stage of ripeness most commonly available around the world; this is when the dates are fully ripe and dried, and are at their sweetest.
Local organic market Ripe, a Dubai initiative that sells ethically sourced produce, has teamed up with Abu Dhabi Farmers’ Centre to sell fresh rotab dates that have been grown locally in the UAE. According to Mark Stannard from the Abu Dhabi Farmers’ Centre, this move is groundbreaking because previously local farmers sold all dates in dried form to the date companies and kept fresh dates for their own consumption, making them hard for consumers to come by. Now, the centre is working with 200 local farms that produce rotab dates, providing growing and technical support, and marketing them locally and internationally. Dhs32 per kg. Available at Ripe, Street 11 (off Street 8a), Al Manara (04 379 0441).