Dates as staple food of the Middle East & the Indus valley for thousands of years

Ismat Sabir

The prices of all the food items are skyrocketing likewise the price of dates reached Rs300 per kg. Arvi Rs180 per kg, Tinda and ladyfinger Rs190 per kg etc. Phoenix dactyllifera, commonly known as date or date palm, is a flowering plant species in the palm family, Are caeca, cultivated for its edible sweet fruit. Although its place of origin is unknown because of long cultivation, it probably originated from the Fertile Crescent region straddling between Egypt and Mesopotamia. The species is widely cultivated across Northern Africa, The Middle East, The Horn of Africa and South Asia, and is naturalized in many tropical and subtropical regions worldwide. P. dactylifera is the type species of genus Phoenix, which contains 12 to 19 species of wild date palms, and is the major source of commercial production.
Date trees typically reach about 21 to 23 meters (69 to 75 ft.) in height, growing singly or forming a clump with several steoms from a single root system. Date fruits are oval cylindrical, 3 to 7 cm (1.2 to 2.8 in) long, and about an inch (2.5 cm) in diameter, ranging from bright red to bright yellow in color, depending on variety. They are very sweet, containing about 75 percent of sugar when dried. Dates have been a staple food of the Middle East and the Indus Valley for thousands of years. There is archaeological evidence of date cultivation in Arabia from the 6th millennium BCE. The total annual world production of dates amounts to 8.5 million metric ton countries of the Middle East and North Africa being the largest producers.
The species name dactylifera date bearing comes from the words datylos, which means date and fero, which means. The fruit is known as a date. The fruit’s English name (through Old French), as well as the Latin both come from the Greek word for “finger”, because of the fruit’s elongated shape.
The records show that the date palm has existed for at least 50 million years. Dried dates are peach, and apricot from Lahun, Fayum, Egypt. Late Middle Kingdom Dates have been a staple food of the Middle East and the Indus Valley for thousands of years. There is archaeological evidence of date cultivation in eastern Arabia between 5530 and 5320 calBC. They are believed to have originated around what is now Iraq, and have been cultivated since ancient times from Mesopotamia to prehistoric Egypt. The Ancient Egyptians used the fruits to make date wine, and ate them at harvest.
There is archeological evidence of date cultivation in Mehrgarh around 7000 BCE, a Neolithic civilization in what is now western Pakistan. Evidence of cultivation is continually found throughout later civilizations in the Indus Valley, including the Harappan period 2600 to 1900 BCE. In Ancient Rome the palm fronds used in triumphal processions to symbolize victory were most likely those of Phoenix dactylifera. The date palm was a popular garden plant in Roman peri style gardens, though it would not bear fruit in the more temperate climate of Italy. It is recognizable in frescoes from Pompeii and elsewhere in Italy, including a garden scene from the House of the Wedding of Alexander.
In later times, traders spread dates around South West Asia, northern Africa, and Spain. Dates were introduced into Mexico and California by the Spaniards in 1765, around Mission San Ignacio. A date palm cultivar, probably what used to be called Judean date palm, is renowned for its long lived orthodox seed, which successfully sprouted after accidental storage for 2000 years. The upper survival time limit of properly stored seeds remains unknown.
Date Fruit Clumps
Date trees typically reach about 21 to 23 meters (69 to 75 ft.) in height, growing singly or forming a clump with several stems from a single root system. The leaves are 4 to6 meters (13 to 20 ft.) long, with spines on the petiole, and pinnate, with about 150 leaflets. The leaflets are 30 cm (12 in) long and 2 cm (0.79 in) wide. The full span of the crown ranges from 6 to 10 m (20 to 33 pct.).
The date palm is dioeciously, having separate male and female plants. They can be easily grown from seed, but only 50 percent of seedlings will be female and hence fruit bearing, and dates from seedling plants are often smaller and of poorer quality. Most commercial plantations thus use cuttings of heavily cropping cultivars. Plants grown from cuttings will fruit 2 to 3 years earlier than seedling plants.
Dates are naturally wind pollinated, but in both traditional oasis horticulture and in the modern commercial orchards they are entirely pollinated manually. Natural pollination occurs with about an equal number of male and female plants. However, with assistance, one male can pollinate up to 100 females. Since the males are of value only as pollinators, this allows the growers to use their resources for many more fruit to producing female plants. Some growers do not even maintain any male plants, as male flowers become available at local markets at pollination time. Manual pollination is done by skilled laborers on ladders, or by use of a wind machine. In some areas such as Iraq the pollinator climbs the tree using a special climbing tool that wraps around the tree trunk and the climber’s back to keep him attached to the trunk while climbing.
Fresh dates, clockwise from top right: crunchy, crunchy opened, soft out of skin, soft date fruits are oval cylindrical, 3 to 7 cm (1.2 to 2.8 in) long, and 2 to 3 cm (0.79 to 1.18 in), and when ripe, range from bright red to bright yellow in color, depending on variety. Dates contain a single stone about 2 to 2.5 cm (0.8 to 1.0 in) long and 6 to 8 mm (0.2 to 0.3 in) thick. Three main cultivar groups of date exist: soft (e.g. ‘Barhee’, ‘Halawy’, ‘Khadrawy’, ‘Medjool’), semidry (e.g. ‘Dayri’, ‘Deglet Noor’, ‘Zahdi’), and dry (e.g. ‘Thoory’). The type of fruit depends on the glucose, fructose, and sucrose content.
Dates are an important traditional crop in Iraq, Arabia, and North Africa west to Morocco. Dates especially Medjool and Deglet Noor are also cultivated in America in southern California, Arizona and southern Florida in the United States and in Sonora and Baja California in Mexico. Date palms can take 4 to 8 years after planting before they will bear fruit, and start producing viable yields for commercial harvest between 7 and 10 years.
Mature date palms can produce 150 to 300 lb. (70 to 140 kg) of dates per harvest season, although they do not all ripen at the same time so several harvests are required. In order to get fruit of marketable quality, the bunches of dates must be thinned and bagged or covered before ripening so that the remaining fruits grow larger and are protected from weather and pests such as birds. Date palms require well-drained deep sandy loam soils with pH 8 to 11. The soil should have the ability to hold the moisture. The soil should also be free from calcium carbonate.

A large number of date cultivars are grown. The most important are:
o Aabel – common in Libya.
o Ajwah – from the town of Medina in Saudi Arabia, it is the subject of a Hadith.
o Al-Khunaizi – from the town of Qatif in Saudi Arabia.
o Amir Hajj or Amer Hajj – from Iraq, these are soft with a thin skin and thick flesh, sometimes called “the visitor’s date” because it is a delicacy served to guests.
o Abid Rahim – from Sudan. In Nigeria it is called Dabino.
o Barakawi- from Sudan.
o Barhee or barhi (from Arabic barh, meaning ‘a hot wind’) – these are nearly spherical, light amber to dark brown when ripe; soft, with thick flesh and rich flavor. One of the few varieties that is good in the khalal stage when they are yellow (like a fresh grape, as opposed to dry, like a raisin).
o Bireir- from Sudan.
o Dabbas – from United Arab Emirates.
o Datça – in Turkey
o Deglet Noor Algerian cultivar originated from the zibane region in the north eastern Algerian desert (the oases of Tolga, Biskra) so named because the center appears light or golden when held up to the sun. This is a leading date in Libya, Algeria, the United States, and Tunisia.
o Derrie or Dayri (the “Monastery” date) – from southern Iraq – these are long, slender, nearly black, and soft.
o Empress – developed by the DaVall family in Indio, California, United States, from a seedling of Thoory. It is large, and is softer and sweeter than Thoory. It generally has a light tan top half and brown bottom half.
o Fardh or Fard – common in Oman, deep dark brown, tender skin, sweet flavor, and small seed keeps well when well packed.
o Ftimi or Alligue – these are grown in inland oases of Tunisia.
o Holwah (Halawi) (Arabic for sweet) – these are soft, and extremely sweet, small to medium in size.
o Haleema – in Hoon, Libya (Haleema is a woman’s name).
o Hayany (Hayani) – from Egypt (“Hayany” is a man’s name) – these dates are dark-red to nearly black and soft.
o Iteema – common in Algeria.
o Kenta – common in Tunisia.
o Khadrawi or Khadrawy (Arabic: ‘green’) – a cultivar favored by many Arabs, it is a soft, very dark date.
o Khalasah (Arabic for quintessence) – one of the major palm cultivars in Saudi Arabia. Its fruit is called Khlas. Notably produced in Hofuf (Al-Ahsa) and Qatif in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia (ash-Sharq?yah).
o Khastawi (Khusatawi, Kustawy) – this is the leading soft date in Iraq; it is syrupy and small in size, prized for dessert.
o Khenaizi – from United Arab Emirates.
o Lulu – from United Arab Emirates.
o Maktoom (Arabic for hidden) – this is a large, red brown, thick-skinned, soft, medium-sweet date.
o Manakbir – a large fruit that ripens early.
o Medjool or (Majdool) – from Morocco, also grown in the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Jordan, and United Arab Emirates; a large, sweet and succulent date.[12]
o Migraf (Mejraf) – very popular in Southern Yemen, these are large, golden-amber dates.
o Mgmaget Ayuob – from Hun, Libya.
o Mishriq- from Sudan and Saudi Arabia.
o Mazafati or Mozafati – It is a dark, fleshy and sweet date of medium size with a relatively high moisture content and is suited for fresh consumption, i.e. not dried. At a temperature of ?5 degrees Celsius (23 °F) it can be kept for up to 2 years. It is grown in Iran, in particular in Kerman province, and often named “Bam date”, after the city of Bam in that province.
o Nabtat-seyf – in Saudi Arabia.
o Piarom (also known as maryami, mariami, marayami or “chocolate”) – A round, black-brown semi-dry date – from Iran.
o Rotab – from Iraq, they are dark and soft.
o Sag’ai – from Saudi Arabia.
o Saidy (Saidi) – soft, very sweet, these are popular in Libya.
o Sayer (Sayir) (Arabic for common) – these dates are dark orange-brown, of medium size, soft and syrupy.
o Sukkary – Yellow skinned; faintly resilient and extremely sweet, often referred to as ‘royal dates’. It’s cultivated primarily in Al Qassim, Saudi Arabia. It’s arguably the most expensive and premium variety.
o Sellaj – in Saudi Arabia.
o Indi – (Sinhala) called in Sri Lanka.
o Tagyat – common in Libya.
o Tamej – in Libya.
o Thoory (Thuri) – popular in Algeria, this dry date is brown-red when cured with a bluish bloom and much wrinkled skin. Its flesh is sometimes hard and brittle but the flavour described as sweet and nutty.
o Umeljwary – in Libya.
o Umelkhashab – Brilliant red skin; bittersweet, hard white flesh (Saudi Arabia).
o Zahidi (Arabic for [Of the] ascetic) – these medium size, cylindrical, light golden brown semi dry dates are very sugary, and sold as soft, medium-hard and hard.
o Zaghloul- Dark red skin, long, and very crunchy when fresh (when they are typically served); extremely sweet, with sugar content creating a sense of desiccation in the mouth when eaten. The variety is essentially exclusive to Egypt, where it is subject to an element of nationalist sentiment on account of sharing a name with national hero Saad Zaghloul.
Diseases and Pests
A major palm pest, the red palm beetle (Rhynchophorus ferrugineus) currently poses a significant threat to date production in parts of the Middle East as well as to iconic landscape specimens throughout the Mediterranean world. In the 1920s, eleven healthy Madjool palms were transferred from Morocco to the United States where they were tended by members of the Chemehuevi tribe in a remote region of Nevada. Nine of these survived and in 1935, cultivars were transferred to the “US. Date Garden” in Indio, California. Eventually this stock was reintroduced to Africa and led to the US.
Dry or soft dates are eaten out of hand, or may be pitted and stuffed with fillings such as almonds, walnuts, pecans, candied orange and lemon peel, tahini, marzipan or cream cheese. Pitted dates are also referred to as stoned dates. Partially dried pitted dates may be glazed with glucose syrup for use as a snack food. Dates can also be chopped and used in a range of sweet and savory dishes, from tajines (tagines) in Morocco to puddings, ka’ak (types of Arab cookies) and other dessert items. Date nut bread, a type of cake, is very popular in the United States, especially around holidays. Dates are also processed into cubes, paste called “‘ajwa”, spread, date syrup or “honey” called “dibs” or “rub” in Libya, powder (date sugar), vinegar or alcohol. Vinegar made from dates is a traditional product of the Middle East. Recent innovations include chocolate-covered dates and products such as sparkling date juice, used in some Islamic countries as a nonalcoholic version of champagne, for special occasions and religious times such as Ramadan. When Muslims breakfast in the evening meal of Ramadan, it is traditional to eat a date first.
Reflecting the maritime trading heritage of Britain, imported chopped dates are added to, or form the main basis of a variety of traditional dessert recipes including sticky toffee pudding, Christmas pudding and date and walnut loaf. They are particularly available to eat whole at Christmas time. Dates are one of the ingredients of HP Sauce, a popular British condiment.

Dates can also be dehydrated, ground and mixed with grain to form a nutritious stock feed. In Southeast Spain (where a large date plantation exists including UNESCO-protected Palmeral of Elche) dates (usually pitted with fried almond) are served wrapped in bacon and shallow fried.
In Israel date syrup, termed “silan”, is used while cooking chicken and also for sweet and desserts, and as a honey substitute. Dates are one of the ingredients of Jallab, Middle Eastern fruit syrup. In Pakistan, viscous, thick syrup made from the ripe fruits is used as a coating for leather bags and pipes to prevent leaking.
Dates provide a wide range of essential nutrients, and are a very good source of dietary potassium. The sugar content of ripe dates is about 80 percent; the remainder consists of protein, fiber, and trace elements including boron, cobalt, copper, fluorine, magnesium, manganese, selenium, and zinc. The glycemic index for three different varieties of dates are 35.5 (khalas), 49.7 (barhi), and 30.5 (bo ma’an). The caffeic acid glycoside 3-O-caffeoylshikimic acid (also known as dactylifric acid) and its isomers are enzymic browning substrates found in dates.
Other Parts Seeds
Date seeds are soaked and ground up for animal feed. Their oil is suitable for use in soap and cosmetics. Date palm seeds contain 0.56 to 5.4 percent auric acid. They can also be processed chemically as a source of oxalic acid. Date seeds are also ground and used in the manner of coffee beans, or as an additive to coffee. Experimental studies have shown that feeding mice with the aqueous extract of date pits exhibit antigen toxic and reduce DNA damage induced by Nitrous-N methyl urea.
Fruit clusters
Stripped fruit clusters are used as brooms. Recently the floral stalks have been found to be of ornamental value in households.
Apart from P. dactylifera, wild date palms such as Phoenix Sylvester’s and Phoenix reclined, depending on the region, can be also tapped for sap.
Date palm leaves are used for Palm Sunday in the Christian religion. In North Africa, they are commonly used for making huts. Mature leaves are also made into mats, screens, baskets and fans. Processed leaves can be used for insulating board. Dried leaf petioles are a source of cellulose pulp, used for walking sticks, brooms, fishing floats and fuel. Leaf sheaths are prized for their scent, and fiber from them is also used for rope, coarse cloth, and large hats. The leaves are also used as a lulav in the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.
Young date leaves are cooked and eaten as a vegetable, as is the terminal bud or heart, though its removal kills the palm. The finely ground seeds are mixed with flour to make bread in times of scarcity. The flowers of the date palm are also edible. Traditionally the female flowers are the most available for sale and weigh 300 to 400 grams (11 to 14 oz). The flower buds are used in salad or ground with dried fish to make a condiment for bread.
In the Quran, Allah instructs Mary?m (the Virgin Mary) to eat dates when she gives birth to Isa (Jesus); and, similarly, they are recommended to pregnant women. Phoenix dactylifera held great significance in early Judaism and subsequently in Christianity, in part because the tree was heavily cultivated as a food source in ancient Israel. In the Bible palm trees are referenced as symbols of prosperity and triumph. In Psalm 92:12 “The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree”. Palm branches occurred as iconography in sculpture ornamenting the Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, on Jewish coins, and in the sculpture of synagogues. They are also used as ornamentation in the Feast of the Tabernacles. Palm branches were scattered before Jesus as he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
Pakistan is the Sixth Largest Producer of Dates in the World.
Thanks to suitable climate conditions, Khairpur in Sindh occupies central place in the country’s date production. Agriculture is central to Khairpur’s economy and date production plays a vital role in providing people with sustainable livelihoods. The golden harvest of Khairpur is not only from adjacent localities, but people migrate to Khairpur with their families from Punjab and Balochistan as well and settle near the date farms. The internal migration begins as the harvest season approaches towards the end of May. Date harvest forms the core of the region’s economic activity.
Boiled raw dates are ready for sundry. Only older women participate alongside men during the harvest as young women are discouraged from working at the farms. Due to cultural constraints, young women are kept away from the farms. The tasks are gendered: women pick fruit from the bunches once they’ve been taken down from the trees by men. Among men, there is also division of labor and difference of compensation. The wages are extremely low, especially compared to how lucrative date farming is. Those who carry the dates on their shoulders and backs earn around Rs350 per day only. Once taken down from the trees, dates are transported to the processing site.
Dates are boiled in water mixed with yellow color for about 20 minutes before being taken out to dry. Those who work in the kitchen to make choaras (dry dates) are paid around Rs500. Those who climb trees to pluck the fruit are paid the highest around Rs700 rupees as their work is the most difficult and risky. Women earn the least at around Rs250 per day. As there’s lack of basic technology, all the tasks are done manually, adding to the workers’ difficulty. Temperatures often reach around 48 degree Celsius and workers work bare feet. Those who work in the kitchen risk fire burns but there is no medical facility in the area in case there is an accident. Climbing trees is potentially fatal. The date variety predominantly found in Khairpur is called Aseel. Most of these dates are dried and turned into choaras. Tractors are the only modern equipment at these farms. A young man separates dokas (raw dates). Each bunch weighs around 15 to 17 kg.
Khairpur’s golden harvest and the women behind it although date palm is a developing industry in Pakistan, the country is already one of the largest producers of this fruit crop in the world. And in the business of producing dates, the city of Khairpur holds a very significant place. Khairpur’s village economy is based on date palm processing and export; this is a source of employment not only for the villagers in Khairpur but also residents of nearby cities, who migrate to the district to work during the crop harvest season. Most of the workers are men, though, with only a small number of women seen working in farms, and that too, the more aged ones.
A majority of Khairpur’s dates are exported to India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. The total annual production of dates in Pakistan is about 0.54 million ton with contribution from Sindh at 0.28 million ton. The date variety predominantly found in Khairpur is called Aseel. 85 percent of these dates are dried and turned into choharas. The dates are boiled in water mixed with yellow colour for some time before being taken out to dry. A large number of men in the villages do not have regular employment and rely on the date palm business.
The dates are boiled in water mixed with yellow color for about 20 minutes before being taken out to dry. As in other parts of Pakistan, young women’s economic independence in this region is also subject to patriarchal authority; their access to the public sphere is strictly controlled and they are mostly restricted to the private sphere. Young women, therefore, cannot carry out income-generating activities by directly working in the fields. There is a stigma attached to their mobility. But Khairpur’s young women still do not sit idle and participate in this business indirectly.
To be Continued…

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