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A Date with Good Health
In prehistoric times, archeologists maintain, the date palm grew wild all the way between Senegal and the Indus valley basin, and there have been claims that it was cultivated in Arabia in 4000 BC. Like the coconut in coastal areas, the date was regarded as a `Tree of Life’, in the sense that each and every part of the tree was useful and used so. The buds and fruit were eaten dried or ground into flour, the sap was drunk or set into cakes to be used as sweeteners. The fiber of its hemp was woven into a kind of coarse fabric and the stone of the fruit was used as fodder for donkeys and other cattle.
Dates seem to also be perfectly mobile, traveling along with the civilizations with time and tide. Accordingly, their usage and consumption traveled around the Eastern European civilization, moving out of the Middle East towards the central and Mediterranean regions of Southern Europe.
Into Africa, they enamored the Egyptians and it is said that when the Moors invaded Spain, they brought this sticky little fruit in with them to the mainstream European culture, However, since the date palm cannot be cultivated in a very large part of Europe owing to its climate and soil conditions, it still continues to be an exotic fruit, identified with belly dancers, Arab souks and women behind black masks atop bejeweled camels, a Westerners’ idea of the Arab world.
In the new world, which was climatically more suited to sustaining the date palm, the tree was in all probabilities first planted by the Spanish army, in its mission to conquer the New Worlds. The area must have been the Californian peninsula, and the first trees are believed to have survived almost 200 years, till the 1950s. Thereafter the complete takeover started and dates became a recognized fruit in the developed and developing world.
For all its mystery, the date is actually quite a healthy fruit, though not a food in itself. It has a large composition of sugar, almost 70% of its weight, and some amount of proteins and vitamins too. They actually contain more natural sugar than any other fruit and a substantial amount of potassium as well as dietary fiber. They have the capacity to provide 144 kilocalories per hundred grams. If teamed with milk, they make a complete meal. This is what the earliest travelers in the desert subsisted on, even for long periods of time.
The best way to eat dates is in their natural form. However, the adventurous spirit can try them in combination with cream cheese (probably a throwback on the dates and goat milk days). Sold in glamorous stores or for `foreign’ consumption, they can be stoned and filled with nuts (like almonds), plain or colored marzipan, or rolled in dust sugar.
They can be added to fruit salads and made into delicious compotes that go wonderfully well with cookies and puddings that are not too sweet in nature. In North African cuisine they are used as a part of the stuffing for meats and even in a stew and fragrant curries, their sharp sweetness providing a pleasant contrast to the savory base.
In the hands of the baker, moist dates can be an asset to sticky puddings and cakes and can be combined to very good effect with dry nuts like walnuts and almonds.
Arab travelers have been single-handedly responsible for a lot of information, cultural transportation and bringing in new articles from one part of the world to another, it is safe to say that we have dates to thank for their stamina, their travel worthiness, and their good taste!