Thursday, March 13, 2008

Phoenix dactylifera

Dates at various stages of ripeness

Since I began exploring and writing about North African and Middle Eastern food a few years ago, I embraced one particular food that I'd heretofore rejected:  dates.

Phoenix dactylifera or the date palm.  Dates are quite simply one of the most perfect, nutritionally balanced foods, but that didn't matter to me before, I thought of them as big, fat, overgrown raisins (don't particularly like raisins) when the truth was really that I'd never actually eaten one.  I just remember them most from date nut granola cereals as a child.  More significantly they struck me as looking quite like huge water bugs that one finds near open drains or in damp areas such as basements, so this, of course, did not help their cause with me one bit. 

But after living in Paris a few years ago, I ate my first Algerian pastry, called a makrout.  It's a little diamond-shaped cake, not much bigger than a petit-four that's made from semolina dough and filled with date paste flavored with orange flower water and a hint of cinnamon. 

Sometimes they are fried, always they are delicious.  

Anyway, after that, as I got to know more about the cakes and about Algerian culture, I noticed that while visiting with friends, I would get offered dates and milk.  There were Algerian deglet noor for sale in every shop in the African/North African neighborhoods where I spent my time. And I also noticed that everyone always had a box on hand at home.

Later after returning to the U.S. and beginning research for my article Gateaux Algeriens:  A Love Affair, I learned that dates (and milk) were the food that Mohammed ate to break his fast. I learned that desert nomads sometimes eat nothing but dates and milk to sustain them because they are extremely nourishing and packed with natural sugars that help maintain energy levels in such harsh environments.  Incidentally the Arabic name for dates is tamr and just the other day I learned that the Portuguese name for them is awfully close:  tamara. How's that for some ancient cultural diffusion?  I learned that dates are ingredients in both sweet and savory dishes all across the Middle East and North Africa and I've even tried a few.  There is nothing quite like Rice with dates and almonds as a side dish for a succulent baked chicken, or even a stuffing for all types of fowl.  YUM!  It's also particularly good as a side with pork roast or chops, because pork just marries so well with sweet fruit.

They have a fascinating history and there is so much lore surrounding them, they are incidentally one of the oldest cultivated fruits in the world and of course they grow on date palms.  Not the kind of palm trees in the tropics, they really need the dry air and the heat of the desert to flourish.

These days I keep a stash in my own refrigerator to eat as a snack or to use in recipes.  They are now a staple in my pantry.

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