If you are looking to invest in a kilogram or more of dates for Ramadan, it is more than likely that you have wondered: What is the best kind of date? Answering this crucial question in time for Ramadan warrants a trip to the Deira Fish and Vegetable Market to sample the 27 date varieties on display.
But before you make that trip, it is worth chewing on a few important facts.
Dates go through different stages of ripening once the fruit begins to develop. Date lingo can be far more intricate than the fruit may let on, so I turned to the experts for help. Fares Sumairi, marketing manager of Al Ain-based date company Al Foah, explains that dates transition from the inedible green khalaal to three edible phases: the red-yellow besr, the translucent moist rutab, and the final dry and wrinkled tamar stage. As the fruit ripens, its moisture content drops and makes it less susceptible to insect damage or rotting. This is why the low-moisture tamar is sold throughout the year compared to the higher-moisture stages of besr or rutab, which should be eaten fresh after harvest or frozen if you plan to eat them later in the year.
If you enjoy crisp and tart green apples or bananas with raw green patches on the skin, then besr dates might be for you. I have always steered clear of their tongue-coating astringency – a most unappetising reward after investing the effort of gnawing through their firm and crunchy fibres. If you enjoy soft and juicy dates, rutab might be your date of choice. Rutab are only available fresh at that petrifying peak of summer when most Dubai residents have scurried away to cooler climes. If you choose to stay, then you are blessed with dates whose tears of sweet juice well up from their delicate ruptured skins. Rutab spontaneously burst in your mouth to release an intense fudgy pulp that you could enjoy plain like a soft chewy caramel, or once you invest in the mandatory ice cream machine, you could spoon over home-made coffee and cardamom ice cream.
Like any good thing, rutab does not last. You can only track them down for about four weeks of summer when they are in their prime, though it has become common to reverse the aging process with cold storage or even chemicals.
The Bam date from the south of Iran is a personal favourite. Their wet luscious pulp coats every possible surface in your mouth, leaving you no choice but to lick your front teeth in an undainty effort to clean up after something that feels far too indulgent to be healthy. It sells cheap at about Dh15 a kilo and is widely available through the year at the Deira market or in the fridges of Iranian speciality stores.
The third tamar phase is where it gets both interesting and terribly inconvenient. No one can give you a definitive answer on what is the best dried date to buy. First you need to decide what texture you prefer: dry, semi-dry or soft. My preference is to pick the softest, juiciest ones with the smallest pits. The parched Iranian or Iraqi Zadi dates would be better off milled into flour, while the skinny Algerian Deglet Noor date has such a low flesh to seed mass that you spend the best part of your time thinking about where to discard the pit than about the nuances of its flavour. Given how easily dates are available in the UAE from all over the Middle East and North Africa, date discrimination is not an offence, but a right. You must fuss over different varieties of dates, even stopping to ponder over different origins for the same kind of date.
Take the prized Medjool for instance. Of the three kinds of Medjool date hawked at the market this season – Palestinian, Jordanian and Saudi – it is unfortunate that my taste buds gravitate towards the most expensive Dh55 per kilo Palestinian Madjool. Compared to average-sized 3cm to 3.5cm dates, these are a whopping 5cm in length, second only to the higher-priced Saudi Ambar dates. If all the other dates were akin to Hershey’s chocolate chip cookies, the Medjool would saunter in as the Valrhona brownie. Its voluptuous innards snuggle up to the seed, with a dense meatiness that trumps the hollow, papery Ambar. The Jordanian Medjool comes a close second, but the Saudi one is as disappointingly dry and tough as it warns from the outside. The same-priced Ajwa date from Madinah is held in sacred regard because it was the Prophet Mohammad’s (PBUH) favourite date. But I still prefer the Palestinian Medjool.
If the price tag for Medjool feels intimidating, there are other dates worthy of your tasting. Khadri dates from the Qassim region of Saudi Arabia are Dh20 cheaper by the kilo, but they’re temptingly plump and chewy with an aftertaste of berries. The softer variety of Sukary dates lives up to its namesake – sukkar or sugar – with an unbridled candied flavour that demands a stern swig of Turkish coffee. The smoky sweetness of Saudi Khalas dates invoke the image of a hot minced beef and gooey brie samosa dabbed with glossy date chutney.
But don’t take my word for it. Every date is different, and your personal impression of that date will be different. My own experience sampling the same date on two different days was often conflicting. ‘Dates are like human beings,’ sums up Sumairi. This is why your taste buds deserve a fully-fledged tasting experience before you make them commit to a date.