Special and divine 'Date'
Aylin Öney TAN - email@example.comThe date tree must be one of the most holy of all trees. It is considered sacred by three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. During the Ramadan, the date fruit becomes the most exclusive fruit for the Islamic world, a must at every iftar table, to break the fast.
Semitic monotheistic religions that stem from the very same geography of the Middle East, all attribute sacred values to the date fruit and tree, probably because their origin is where the date has its roots. Inarguably, the tree of the Middle East is the date. In the arid geography of deserts, the palm tree is not only the most favored tree, but the sole tree that can survive in the scorching heat. The palm is both the umbrella and fan of the desert, its wide leaves protecting from the sun-rays and waving themselves to blow a breath of breeze to their own oasis beneath. The umbrella like shade of the palm provides shelter for small orchards and vegetable gardens creating batches of land where agriculture is made possible. The ideal palm grove is three-layered. Above is the natural shade provided by the palm leaves, under their screen an orchard of fruit or citrus trees, and beneath all salad greens, cucumbers, vegetables. The palm trees create a natural orangerie of some sort, forming a micro-climate and turning a piece of desert into an island of paradise. There is a common saying in the Middle East that the roots of the date tree belongs to the heaven, and the leaves to the hell, referring both to the serene cool oasis created by the tree, and to the deadly heat of the sun above. The date is crucial in the diet of the desert, rich in fiber and minerals, used in great number of versatile ways. No wonder Herodotus mentioned the date tree as a source of sustenance when describing Babylon: “Palm-trees grow in great numbers over the whole of the flat country, mostly of the kind which bears fruit, and this fruit supplies them with bread, wine and honey.”
Strangely, I realized the connection with Ramadan and dates at a rather late age, when I was living in Algiers. Algiers had been also the country where I began to admire the fruit, especially the fresh ones. That was the years of the late PM of Turkey, Turgut Özal, and before than imported food in Turkey was practically almost nonexistent. When I was growing up in Turkey, we never had dates on the iftar table, but it was another holy crop, the olive, that was reached out at every table to break the fast. Turkey was one of the few countries that was self-sustained in food supplies and importing food was forbidden, with only few food products like coffee allowed as foreign commodities. Developing my acquired taste for the date fruit and discovering the varieties and their taste nuances had been a revelation for me, thanks to the divine taste of Deglet Beida, and Deglet Noor of Magrebian date groves. Nowadays, I also attribute a unifying role to the unique fruit. According to Torah, date is the symbol of justice, while the tree stands for the life-tree in the Bible, and finally according to Islamic belief it is the fruit of the prophet with its roots in the heaven.
Three faiths, one fruit. This must be the time for a date!
Bite of the week
Fork of the Week: Usually the greatest variety and the best of dates are to be found in the Spice Market. The prices can vary greatly, the best not always the most expensive. Look out for the
fresh ones, usually sold in bundles to eat straight from the branch; for cooking purposes like our recipe of the week the soft ones go better; or choose firm ones to use in the recipe to preserve with the spirit. Funnily the most popular are “Kudüs hurması / Jerusalem dates”, as if to honor all three religions, and the best are at Ucuzcular No: 51 or the famous Malatya Pazarı.
Cork of the Week: Date is also used in making Arak, the distilled spirit of the Middle East similar to rakı. As this notoriously strong intoxicant is not available in Turkey, make it vice versa and make a concoction of dates with some booze. Pit enough dates to fill a jar. Tightly pack the jar with the pitted dates, placing broken pieces of a whole cinnamon stick, a dozen or two of whole cloves a few
anise stars and a spiral of orange rind. Fill the jar with your favorite spirit, vodka, rum, or even rakı.
Rakı will give a strong anise taste, which can be quite nice with the extreme sweetness of the dates, provided that you like the flavor. Tightly close the lid and forget the jar in a dark corner for a couple of weeks or months. If you find your previous jar in the larder towards the end of year, enjoy the drink as a sweet spicy liquor and the dates in your fruit cake, or chopped in puddings, or dipped in chocolate.
Recipe of the Week: One of the most simple recipes to make with dates is the Date Bread. This recipe, however, has nothing to do with the famous date bread “Kubz Tamar” of Middle Eastern cities but comes from Tudor period England. Actually, it is more like a cake to be enjoyed in tea-time spread with some sweet butter or fresh clotted cream. It is so simple that it takes only minutes to prepare. Chop roughly 250 g dates and put into a pan with 150 ml water, 100 g brown sugar (or molasses), 75 g butter and bring to a boil and once boiled set aside to cool immediately. Meanwhile mix 250 g flour, 50 g chopped walnuts and 1 tbs of mixed spice (cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, coriander, allspice etc.) in a mixing bowl. When the boiled dates are lukewarm, add the date mixture to the flour mixture together with two eggs. Mix thoroughly to blend, pour the batter to a non-stick or lined cake tin, flatten the surface and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of sesame seeds. Bake in pre-heated oven for 1 hour at 180°C. Serve along tea or coffee very thinly sliced with a spread of butter.