There is surely no food that symbolises Ramadhan more so than the humble date fruit. The English word “date” comes from the Greek “daktulos,” describing their seemingly finger-like shape. Every Ramadhan, dates make their presence in a huge variety of colours, tastes, shapes and textures. Sold in all types of shops, from the local corner shop to online retail outlets, and even in our supermarkets – the Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s of the world all stockpile on dates. Places that might rarely see dates nowadays get inundated with them come Ramadhan. It’s an annual global phenomenon, and come to think of it, worthy of some contemplation. Particularly, given that our consumption of dates and its indelible mark on our food tables today is an example of a food tradition that grew out of Arabia at the time of the Prophet.
Dates come from the date palm tree (Phoenix dactylifera), which can grow to an average height of 23 metres. From pollination, it takes six to eight months for dates to ripen in desert-like conditions. In the first stage of their development (khimr), they’re quite small and unripe. The second stage (khalal), begins by about four months when dates become hard and crunchy. By around six months (rutab), they start becoming sweet and soft. It then takes roughly another two months to reach the fourth and final stage (tamar) for the dates to fully ripen, sweeten and become sticky.
Worldwide production of dates is estimated to have increased almost threefold over the last 40 years, reaching 7.68 million tons in 2010. To put it in some context, this is roughly the same as strawberries. Though farming dates is arguably much more labour intensive, needing hand pollination and, for some dates, the tall trees need to be climbed to thin them down to allow room for the dates to grow. And once ripened, they then need to be hand-picked. Some farmers harvest dates after the rutab stage and ripen them off-tree or sell them on as the dry, sweet variety.
According to one study, dates are made up of 70-80% carbohydrates (or sugars), 2-4% protein, 1% fat and the rest water and trace amounts of minerals. Three types of sugars can be found in dates (fructose, glucose and sucrose), of which fructose varies most between different types of dates. The high sugar and low water content gives dates a relatively long shelf life. The protein content contains essential amino acids (which the body cannot make) and there are also minerals like (in order of amount) potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, sodium, as well as trace amounts of vitamin C, B1 thiamine and others.
In short, dates are super foods that can even be eaten when unripe. Thus, it’s not surprisingly that for thousands of years they’ve been staple food in the Middle East and elsewhere. It’s thought that the Moors introduced dates to Spain and later Spanish travellers brought it to places like the West Coast of America.
Many types of dates can be found in our shops. The Medjool dates, with their large size, soft texture and sweet taste, cultivated from places like Palestine and Jordan have become quite popular in recent years. Prior to them, what probably dominated was the Deglet Noor type. Then there are dates like Khalas from Saudi Arabia. But perhaps the most sought after are the Ajwa dates with their soft, dry, fruity, dark coloured appearance, cultivated in and around Medina. Today, the growing numbers of cake bakers in our families will also seek just about any type of date to make things like chocolate brownies and sticky toffee puddings and so on.
Dates are mentioned in the Qur’an in multiple places. For example, in sura Maryam we learn that God commanded Lady Maryam to eat dates. As it turns out, according to published research, consumption of date fruit in the last weeks of pregnancy can help with labour. From the Prophet’s sunnah, too, we find practices like rubbing a small part of a date into the mouth of a new born baby (tahnik) which has medicinal benefits. And of course, we open fasts with dates to follow the sunnah. Of the trees mentioned in the Qur’an, the date palm tree, called nakhlah, is one of them. The parable of the tree to describe the nature of faith (iman) with firm roots and trunks that break high into the sky, is the none other than the date palm tree. The Prophet’s Mosque was first built using the trunk and leaves of the date palm tree, reflecting its versatility too.
Perhaps, then, the less obvious story of the date fruit is the deep trans-historical blessings of the Prophet. Contemplating it, one is certainly awe struck and left asking the question: if it wasn’t for the Prophet, by God’s grace, who would have acquainted us with this most nutritious of fruits?