Dates - The World's Most Complete Food
BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer
In the Middle Eastern lands, where the date palm carries an aura of mystery and romance, there is a common belief that it is the oldest cultivated fruit tree in the world. In its native homeland, the Arabian Peninsula, the inhabitants have no doubt that it was first grown in Paradise. According to Muslim belief, the Archangel Gabriel told Adam in the Garden of Eden: “Thou art created from the same substance as this palm tree which henceforth shall nourish you.”
To the Arabs the date palm has a definite personality and human qualities. Well they might have a point for like man, if the tree’s head is severed, it will die. In the same fashion as a human limb, a frond cut will not grow again, and the palm’s crown is covered with thick foliage, like the hair on a human head.
Historians have theorized that perhaps 7,000 years ago the date palm was first cultivated in the Arabian Peninsula. From this arid land, the cultivation of the date palm spread to the Fertile Crescent. Written records by the Sumerians, Assyrians and Babylonians, found on clay tablets, describe this historic tree and its fruit. Murals depicting palms from the days of these civilizations have been uncovered which prove beyond doubt that dates were well known in the days of antiquity.
Perhaps, at the beginning of the Pharaonic era the cultivation of date palms spread to the Valley of the Nile. Paintings found in the tombs of the Pharaohs indicate that they were known in that ancient land, at least since the time that the hieroglyphics were created.
In later centuries, Phoenician traders carried the date palm from the Fertile Crescent and Egypt to North Africa and Spain. However, in Spain the date palm was not cultivated on a large scale until 712 A.D after the Arabs occupied the Iberian Peninsula. In the Alicante province of the eastern coast of Spain palm orchards, first established by the Arabs, are today, still flourishing.
From Spain the Conquistadors brought along with them the date palm to the Americas. However, as a food crop, in both North and South America, it did not thrive until this century, and then, solely in a few locations. In the U.S., at the beginning of the 1900s, the date palm was introduced from North Africa to be planted on a commercial basis.
The Algerian Deglet Noor was the first type of date cultivated on a large scale, and remains the most important variety grown in the U.S. Today, the Coachella Valley of California is the heart of a prosperous date industry. Yet, despite its propagation through many lands, including the U.S.A., the date tree is still, in the main, planted as a food crop in the Arab countries. Iraq, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia account for most of the world’s date supply.
The scenic palm, called by some the `Tree of Paradise’, has had religious significance since the dawn of history. The ancient Mesopotamian religions regarded it as a sacred plant, and this reverence was passed on to later religions and civilizations. In the Old Testament, the story of Genesis mentions it as the `tree of life’, and the Book of Psalms records that the `righteous shall flourish like a palm tree’. Even today, among the Christians, its leaves are used in the celebrations of Palm Sunday.
In Islam, the Prophet Muhammad enjoined his followers to honour the palm tree as ‘one blessed among all plants as Muslims are blessed among men’, and the Holy Qur’an states that Mary gave birth to Jesus under a palm tree whose fruit she ate to ease the pain of childbirth.
Without doubt, a tree sacred to so many religions is more than an ordinary plant. The inhabitants of the oases in the Arabian Desert and the Sahara of North Africa value the graceful palm, above all other trees and it is for them a symbol of wealth and prestige. For thousands of years it has been the foundation of life for the dwellers of these arid lands.
The climate in these countries is ideal for its cultivation, and its fruit is easily preserved. When ripe and dried, dates, which formed for millennia, the basis of life in the desert, do not spoil. It is as if this valuable fruit was tailor made for this rainless part of the world.
To thrive, the date palm needs a hot dry climate with no rain, but needs much water for its roots. It is said this majestic tree needs its head in the sun and its feet in water. The Arabs have a proverb, which says, ‘the date palm must have its feet in heaven, but its head in hell’.
Under ideal conditions, the tree usually grows from 20 to 30 feet, but at times may reach up to a 100 feet. The palm has no branches but the leaves, when the tree matures, are from 20 to 30 feet long. Its life span is 100 years, although it has been known, in some instances, to reach the age of 200. After five years the date tree begins to bear fruit and continues until it dies of old age.
There are perhaps, several thousand species bearing fruit that range from the size of a tiny plum to a large orange. A single tree, when full grown, will produce up to 300 lbs. of fruit, hanging in great bunches weighing l0 to over 30 lbs. each – some containing as many as a thousand dates. These picturesque clusters of dates need at least six months to mature. They ripen in four stages: kimiri, the green stage; khalal, when they turn yellowish with a red tinge; rutab, the first stage of ripening and; tamar, when they fully mature. In the last stage, dates are light brown, plump and glossy with a sweet pulp.
In the lands where civilization began, the date palm is believed to be the oldest food plant known to man. The fruit, which is exceedingly rich and nourishing, is ideal for the daily diet. If need be, a person can live a healthy life, for many months, with a menu of only dates and milk – eaten for centuries in the Arabian Peninsula.
Dates are without doubt one of the world’s most complete foods, providing vital nutrients for the body. They contain carbohydrates, protein, vitamins A, B, D and G, iron, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, calcium and copper. They contain more sugar as compared to other fruits, but their sugars are easily absorbed and not acid forming. Dates have enough fibre, about 10% of their weight, to provide the body’s needed roughage. The Bedouin of the Arabian Peninsula must have had an inkling of their food value. They called dates `bread of the desert’, and considered them a miracle food.
From the days of early civilizations humans have believed that dates have medical qualities. The Bedouin maintain that a diet of this rich fruit can cure virtually any ailment from a simple cold to impotence. For untold centuries, many believed that dates cured the diseases of the lung and chest, steadied blood pressure, helped to relieve haemorrhoids, gallstones and varicose veins, and cleared the intestines.
In addition to its fruit, much valued as a nourishing health food, the other uses of the date palm are of great economic importance. Its fibre is utilized for ropes and mats; its wood for building materials and furniture; its leaves for roofs, baskets and hats; and the stones of the fruit are crushed for animal food. Also, the sap, called the ‘drink of life’ by the early inhabitants of the Middle East, is made into sugar, vinegar or alcoholic drinks, and the tree acts as an umbrella for other fruits and vegetables growing in its shade. In the domain of food and shelter, it is said that there are at least 800 uses for the date palm.
Dates can be eaten fresh or dried, made into jams and syrups or utilized as ingredients in the preparation of other foods, such as confectioneries, pastries and even meat dishes. In their native homelands of the Middle East and North Africa, dates are used in countless dishes, from appetizers to entrées and desserts. Living in the midst of a golden harvest of dates, the peoples in these lands have long realized that this historic fruit is an excellent staff of life.