Dates are the fruit of the date palm. The tree hails from the desert oases of Northern Africa or the Persian Gulf and has a history so long experts can’t pinpoint its exact origins—the earliest carvings from Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations show dates were already a well-established staple. In those regions, dates are still considered an essential of life and have about 800 distinct uses.
Desert Arabs have been known to maintain health for long periods on virtually nothing but dates and milk, and some authorities consider dates a nearly perfect food. Most of their value lies in their high sugar content, ranging between 50 percent for fresh dates and 70 percent for dried ones. But they also contain a fair amount of protein, fats, vitamins A and B, minerals such as iron and magnesium, and high levels of fiber and potassium.
Most of the dates we get in the United States are of the large Medjool variety, although others, notably the Bardhi, are also available. Most are sold pitted and packaged, chopped or whole. If buying in the bulk section, look for plump dates with smooth, shiny skin. Avoid those that are highly shriveled and those developing mold or sugar crystals on their skin.
Dates figure prominently into the Feast of Ramadan, the 30-day observance when Muslims fast between sunrise and sundown. Tradition holds that dates were the first food the prophet Muhammad ate when breaking his fast, but the wisdom of eating dates transcends the spiritual—dates help regulate blood sugar during long periods of fasting.
—By Jo Marshall, a food writer in Deephaven, Minn.