By Marisa Romano
Dates, the fleshy and sweet edible fruit of palm trees, are an important religious symbol, traditionally associated with Islam and Muslim culture. They are in grocery stores all year round, but during this holy month of Ramadan, ethnic retailers and supermarkets stock shelves with the best quality and sweetest varieties. This is the time when devoted Muslims around the world break their daily fast with dates at their iftar table after the sun has set, a tradition rooted in religious teachings. This is the time to bring this gift of nature to all tables.
Native to desert climates, date palm is one of the oldest cultivated trees, and dates are considered the oldest harvested fruit in recorded history. Their importance goes back to biblical times: Ancient Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman societies featured palm trees in their ceremonies.
Symbol of prosperity in the Arab world, date palm has sustained the life of populations in the arid regions of the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asia by providing staple food, materials for construction, fuel and medicine.
The religious significance of this tree spans across cultures; date palms are part of the daily prayers on the Jewish feast of Sukkot and the celebration of Christian Palm Sunday. But Islam reveres date palm more than any other religion.
UNESCO has recognised the crucial role that this tree had in the history of civilization of the Arab world, and in 2022, inscribed the date palm and its traditions on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Nowadays palm dates are cultivated also in other hot and arid regions of the globe, but the main production areas are still where palm groves have been thriving since ancient times.
There are more than 200 varieties of dates of different sizes, shapes, colours and flavours; some are produced only in very small areas of origin. Just a few varieties reach our stores, the large, soft, sweet and fibrous Medjool being the most sought-after, and the semi-dry, nutty Deglet Noor being the most common in our supermarkets.
But there is another variety that is making its presence known: the Iranian Mazafati. With their soft pulp and chocolatey/caramel taste Iranian dates melt in the mouth, literally. Mithra from Shiraz, the Iranian store located in Chinatown, suggests pitting and stuffing them with walnuts, or savouring them with a drop of earthy tahini that complements their flavour. She also recommends trying them in Adas Polo, a staple Iranian lentil and rice dish with roots in legendary Persian cuisine. Enjoy!
Adas Polo (Persian lentils and rice)
1 cup Basmati rice
2/3 cups green lentils
1/3 cup raisins rinsed in water
1/3 cup chopped dates
1 small onion
About 1/3 cup cooking oil
1 pinch of saffron dissolved in 3 tbsp water
1-2 tbsp salt
- Rinse lentils and cook in 2 cups boiling water until tender but not mushy.
- Slice onion and sauté in 2 tbsp oil. Add raisins and dates, and mix.
- Wash the rice and cook in abundant boiling salty water until “al dente” (soft on the outside but slightly crunchy in the inside). Drain well.
Bring the Adas Polo together:
- Add 3 tbsp oil to the bottom of a large pot (better if non-stick)
- Add a third of the rice, half of the lentils, onions, raisins and dates.
- Cover with another third of the rice, add the rest of the other ingredients and top with the rest of the rice.
- Drizzle with dissolved saffron.
- Make some holes in the rice with the handle of a wooden spoon.
- Cover the pot with the lid and cook on medium heat until condensation forms on the lid. Lower the heat to minimum and let cook for 30 to 45 minutes. The rice will not burn if the temperature is at minimum. This last step allows for tadigh, a crunchy crust, to form at the bottom of the pan.
- When ready, mix the rice with a fork and serve on a platter with tadigh served on the side. Decorate with more dates.
This simple dish has as many variations as there are families; some call for added spices or meat. Mahvash, the busy lady at Cedars and Co. on Bank Street in Old Ottawa South, suggests skipping the steaming, and instead layering or mixing fully cooked lentils and rice drizzled with saffron and serving it topped with onion (especially!), raisins and dates.
Marisa Romano is a foodie with Italian roots and a flair for sharing her love of food.