In the Middle East, date palms are a natural element of the landscape. The towering trees adorn streets and march down road medians. They sprout out of private gardens and public parks. Come late summer, their gracefully swaying green heads send forth sturdy branches laden with heavy fruit clusters. Most of us know fat, wrinkly brown dates as a sweet delicacy. Good Middle-Eastern cooks use a date syrup called dibs, or silan, to add a trace of sweetness in cooked dishes. Here’s a vegetarian recipe that features silan. But there’s so much more to know about dates.
Their history goes back much farther than Pliny the Elder’s comments on the extinct Judean date palm in the first century – a palm with one sole living descendent as we described in this post. The role of the date in world economy civilization, their practical uses and medicinal qualities, and even their love life are fascinating material for the reader. Nawall Nasrallah has harvested the information and in her warm, unhurried voice, tells it over to us in her Dates, A Global History. The little book is also generously illustrated with photographs and historical reproductions.
It’s said that there are 360 uses for the date palm, utilizing everything from the palm fronds to the dried seed. Who knew? The author laments not being able to give us all 360 uses, but she gives us plenty to think about. In 136 pages, Dates covers date varieties, the history of the date palm, their anatomy and how they grow, and even their love life. The little book is studded with delicious gems of information blended with myth and history like the following:
Like humans, the date palm is said to be sociable. It does well at places bustling with life…As with women, if the palm get too fat or too thin, it cannot conceive easily. Like women, the female date palms are impregnated with “semen” with varying chances of success. (Referring to hand pollination.) They are also similar to women in that both are said to be influenced by the moon.
We consider modern-day use of date palms in permaculture, but learn that the ancients already knew to use date palms as a green anti-air-pollution device:
…date palms were traditionally planted next to houses. Not only did they provide much-needed cooling shade, but they also worked as air filters. The fronds close to the upper opening of air circulation passages would cleanse the air of dust before it got into the house.
Dates winds its way like a river through the history of the date palm, from ancient times until today. We were surprised to learn that in 1927, the prized medjool variety – that rich, plump date that melts in the mouth like chocolate and which commands the highest price at our shuk – hovered on the edge of extinction from disease. Nine healthy offshoots brought from Morocco were planted in the relatively sterile desert of Nevada, USA in 1935. They survived to become the ancestors of the delicious medjools people everywhere enjoy today. In recent years, the return of destructive insects threaten the red date palm – see our post about it here.
Nasrallah also helps us to see the neglected obvious: Where date palm groves flourish, desertification subsides. This, in turn, reduces global warming. And as Tafline reported, date palms are an effective cleaner of toxic waste water.
After reading Dates, I no longer take the neighborhood date palms for granted. I gaze at them as I pass by, trying to understand the growth stage they’re at and what might be happening in their green crowns. Their rustling leaves give birds shade and a place to roost, but unfortunately, most of their fruit goes unexploited except by those same birds, and most falls to rot on the ground. Municipal date palms aren’t pollinated, so their fruit is wizened and nutrient-poor. It’s a shame to see literally tons of potentially nutritious fruit going to waste. In addition to the fruit, palm leaf waste could be used to make pulp for paper.
Dates winds up with a few historical date recipes, then some modern ones that we can easily cook. There are recipes for a milkshake, a chutney, an aphrodisiac omelet. The recipe for braised chicken with nuts and dates especially intrigues me. But honestly, after reading this delicious little book, I’m just hungry to open my fridge and fish out a few fat, chewy, sticky dates to eat out of hand.
Dates, A Global History, by Nawal Nasrallah
Published 2011 by Reaktion Books Ltd., London
ISBN 978 1 86189 769 1
Click here for a list of vendors you can order Dates, A Global History from.
Photo of fresh dried dates via Shutterstock