The Date: Indigenous Fruit of Kuwait
Mia Ponzo (Um Sa'ud)
June 2002 KTM
There is a magical fruit that grows abundantly in the little desert country of Kuwait. Its tree provides shade in the heat of the hot desert sun, its fronds provide shelter, and are used to make countless useful items, such as brooms, roofing for homes, stuffing for cushions, and more. But the most fantastic thing that the date palm tree provides are the dates.
In Kuwait, there wouldn't be found a home that didn't contain dates. This fruit is the staple fruit of the Arabian people, especially those of the Gulf and desert regions. In many of these places it is the only fruit that grows easily, and since the date tree is so hearty, it can survive the heat of the summer, and still get ready to produce its beautiful fruit by the end of the summer.
The other day I was looking out of the window at a friends home, and I noticed that the date tree in their garden was getting ready to start the process of the ripening of the dates. It is a very amazing thing that the fronds at the tops of the trees just start to put out stems, and there are teeny tiny round green date buds by what seems like the millions on both sides of each stem. These thin stems fan out from the tops of thicker stems, magically popping out of what seems like inappropriate places. They looked beautiful like that, all green and fresh, and I was prompted to imagine what they were going to be like later on when they actually ripen. Their load will become heavy, and those fronds that are dusting the sky, will hang down and be ready for the harvest. The thought of fresh dates right off the tree makes my mouth water with anticipation, and I can't wait until the date harvesting season gets into full swing!
There are many types of dates that grow in this region, and one of the main ones is "Berhi", which is grown a lot here in Kuwait. In Saudi Arabia, there are actually huge date plantations, and there are many different types of dates grown there. Here in Kuwait the date growing business generally remains a private one limited to the family, and if there are extra dates, they are often distributed to neighbors and friends. I am always particularly happy when I am the recipient of such gifts, because, although you can buy dates of all shapes and sizes in every supermarket in Kuwait, the home grown ones always seem to taste just a little bit better. Each home's dates will have their own distinct flavor too, based on the ground they are grown on, among other factors.
The date tree has a long history in both Arabia and other places. In Islamic history and pre-history, the date fruit has been mentioned over and over again. In the Qur'an there are verses referring to the virgin Mary (Maryam, in Arabic), who, when she was delivering her son Jesus (Eisa, in Arabic), was divinely inspired to eat dates that were provided for her on a tree (which was out of season at that time, a miracle), and those dates eased her labor and made it easier for her to stand the pain of her contractions. (Remember, she was all alone). In a tradition of the prophet Mohammad (peace and blessings upon him), it is said: "There is no hunger in a home that has the two black things, dates and water". Muslims, during the fast of the Holy Month of Ramadhan, are recommended to break their fasts at sunset initially with dates and water (or buttermilk), since the fruit contains sugar and other nutrients that are good for giving energy after having been deprived of food and water the entire day.
The fact is that dates contain so many vitamins, minerals and nutrients that it is indeed almost a complete food. Dates also contain other components as well, some of them are similar to certain hormones that help in easing the contractions of the uterus, thus dates, are useful both during and after the birthing process. In Kuwait and other Arabian lands there is a delicious dish prepared with dates that is eaten after the delivery of a baby, and often during the Holy Month of Ramadhan as well. This dish is called " ", and is made with flour, butter (or "samna", which is clarified butter), and mashed up dates. I like this dish, and like to break my fast with it in Ramadhan, as it is a kind of "comfort" food for me. It is soft, mushy, and warm, and reminds one of a time when life was much simpler, as in childhood, babyhood even.
There is no Bedouin household that doesn't always, always have plenty of dates on hand, for every guest that enters the home, tent or "bait sha'ar" (hair house) of a Bedouin must be served and honored with traditional bitter coffee and dates. Many "modern" people have taken to serving fancy sweets and chocolates with their coffee, here in Kuwait, but the Bedouins, no matter how rich or "citified" they have become hold strongly to their traditions, and dates must always be served. No guest is allowed to end their visit before they are served coffee and dates, (and often tea afterwards as well). In date season, fresh dates will be served, and out of season either dried, or packed dates will be there, and nowadays freezing keeps dates looking and tasting fresh even months after the season. Most older Gulf Arabs wouldn't wake up in the morning if it weren't for looking forward to their morning coffee and dates, and the coffee flows all day long.
Kuwaitis have come to be famous for the variety of special date dishes that are made, and even the more modern sweets often use dates as a base for sweet chocolatey concoctions. There is a dish called "Rangina" that is gorgeous also, and similar to " " in that it is made with butter and flour as well. Some people stuff the dates with nuts, cashews and almonds are usually the nuts of choice, and others stuff them with cream, cheese, etc.,(there is a dish that one Kuwaiti woman I know makes that uses Italian Mascarpone cheese as a stuffing and is covered with homemade caramel sauce. That dish is so divine it is practically sinful). And there is always the traditional dates with "dibs" and fennel seeds. This is made by first sitting the dates in the sun for some time to dry them, and then taking "dips", which is like molasses made out of date sugar, and drenching them in it, along with fennel seeds, that are added. The entire thing is mixed together and packed tightly in bags, or other containers, to be eaten throughout the year. This way of making dates, acts to preserve them, and once they are dried, they will not spoil, even in the hottest weather. Everywhere you go, in Arabian lands, you will find sweets made with dates, like "ma'amool", (date stuffed cookies), date candies, etc. Dates are an Arabian heritage.
For me, there is a certain romance that surrounds the date fruit. It conjures visions of Arabian tents in the desert with feasts of the most delectable meats, rices, and hoards of sweetmeats, including varieties of Arabian dates all served on elegant trays and platters, with the feasters sitting around on cushions of silk brocade, wearing luxurious robes and turbans. Outside the tents, awaiting their riders, white and black Arabian steeds, with nostrils aflair, ready to run off, with their riders upon them, to thwart a rival tribe. What an Arabian fantasy that is! I guess I've seen too many Lawrence of Arabia type films, or, perhaps, have read 1001 Arabian Nights one too many times, but in any case, I still buy into the "Arabian Nights Dream Fantasy" thinking, and the romance of it all is sometimes overwhelming for me. Take me away to the land of the date palms. Oh! I'm here.