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A short guide to date varieties

May 20, 2018
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Four types of date on a plate

I must confess to having food geek tendencies. When in a car, driving to Sharjah with my friend Arva to do one of her food tours, I confessed to her that I had, on a spur of the moment whim, set myself a goal of posting about dates for every day during Ramadan. Instead of telling me what a crazy idea this was she exclaimed “That’s great”, with genuine enthusiasm and started to regale me with some of the fascinating details about this fruit that has played such a central part in so many cultures. If I’m a food nerd, she’s a food geek crossed with a brain that functions as an encyclopedia. She even told me the origin of the name and rattled off the Latin – it’s Phoenix Dactylifera by the way.

This tale of the name is a long and complicated one so I’ll save it for another day. Arva also suggested you should use different types of dates for different recipes which led onto the topic of the stages of ripeness (see below).

We got to Sharjah in the shimmering late afternoon. The deep waters of the creek reflected the grand domed buildings on the opposite side. Abras (small ferry boats) and dhows (larger wooden boats) bobbed lazily in their moorings. The shadows were long and all was very peaceful; a gentle, calming prelude to the end of another day of fasting during Ramadan.

Everyone gathered and the tour started, taking in the historic, old Heart of Sharjah, the large mosque dating from the 1800s and the souqs (markets). More about this anon.

We were sitting drinking gahwa – the local coffee which the mother of our Emirati guide Fatima, had ground the beans (from Sri Lanka) by hand for us. While we sipped the refreshing, slightly fruity, hot drink from little paper cups, Arva ambushed us with a pop quiz about dates.  If you are going on her tour you might not want to read the following (unless you want to cheat and get full marks that is). We tasted…

dates on a plate with their names

Three varieties of dates

  • Medjool rutab – one of the most famous dates and this is unsurprising. The ones we tasted were plump, soft and juicy, with a luxurious, melt in your mouth texture. There’s a brightness about the taste which offsets the sweetness so they’re not cloying. And they are absolutely huge.
  • Ajwa – a small, dark, almost black date with a smooth skin. It gives an intense, deep treacle-like flavour as soon as you pop it in your mouth. Very smooth in taste and texture.
  • Sukkary rutab – very sweet, juicy and yielding. Sukkary dates are the very sweetest – and indeed sukkary means ‘the sweet one’. The distinctive yellowish skin of this acorn-shaped date is very creased, and because of the crystallised sugars they contain can be slightly crunchy.
  • Sukkary dried – we also tasted a dried or tamer sukkary date to compare the difference. They were chewier and some crunchiness was very apparent especially near the stem. The concentration due to being dried meant they were even sweeter.

The Khalas (or Khlas) variety is very popular in the UAE, with a soft, sticky texture and caramel flavour, many consider it to be best; other varieties include Nghal, Barhi, Khnaizi, Loulou, Yabri, Bu ma’an, Shaishi, Bucheebal (there are hundreds of varieties and they are often known by different names depending on the country). This is why it’s called a short guide; the full version would be a life’s work.

The stages of ripeness in dates

  • Hababawk – when the date is really tiny*
  • Khalal (or khalaal) – the green unripe stage, and some people like to eat them, especially the older generation of Emiratis, but it’s an acquired taste
  • Besr – this is when the date is just starting to ripen on the tree, it changes colour and is still crunchy
  • Rutab (ratab) – the fresh date is fully ripe in taste and colour; lusciously soft and juicy within a papery thin skin.  They are only available for a few short weeks in the summer months
  • Tamr (or tamar) – is the dried date that we are most used to. Some of the moisture has evaporated so the dates can be stored. There are very many textures of dried dates.

*Arwa, an Emirati friend, gave me this term

Date quiz

Here are the questions – as dates are such a huge topic the answers and the discussion that followed is abbreviated but you get the gist.

A question of sex

Avra asked us whether if dates palms are male or female? There are both types and some varieties are bisexual so to speak. The male palms don’t bear fruit and one male tree can fertilise around fifty female trees. Dates can be planted from a seed but then the origin and sex of the tree can’t be predicted, so they are usually grown from cuttings that grow from the base of the plant. Emiratis plant date palms wherever they have space, on grass verges and small patches of land outside their houses. Early one morning you might spot a man hauling himself up the trunk of a tree by a kind of long belt; as the fruit-bearing females are most desirable, dates are usually pollinated by hand using the efflorescence from the male tree.

Not a cheap date

The Ajwa dates are the most expensive, even more than the prized Medjool. This is because they are from Medina in Saudi Arabic and were the favourite of the Prophet Muhammed. The name means to ‘wean off’ as dates were often used to wean children off their mother’s milk. *The date palm is mentioned more than any other fruit-bearing plant in the Qur’an. The date is referred to as tuhfat Maryam (precious gift to Mary, Mother of Jesus) as it was this fruit that nurtured her throughout childbirth (al-Tha’alibi Thimar 1 106).

Blame the parents

Where does the name Medjool come from? As the palm tree can originate from a seed, and through cross-pollination of different trees, lead to new varieties (very like the grapevine), no one really knows where it first came from. However this uniquely delicious date was named ‘prized orphans’ due to its unknown lineage.

A thorny subject

Yes, dates do have thorns which grow around the central bud or heart at the very top of the tree. If the heart is removed or damaged the tree will die.

How would you have fared in the quiz?

Three types of dates on a plate

Pin this for later

We left Sharjah for Dubai, the main roads unusually quiet as people had returned to their homes and families to eat and congregate. Arva fetched some date samples from the fridge in her house (fresh, rutab dates must be kept cool to preserve them) to send me home with. I also clutched a slender, volume under my arm, called Dates-A Global History by Nawal Nasrallah. There is so much still to learn about this plant that has sustained people over centuries. On awakening I read two chapters and on my dog walk with Hazel I was peering at date flowers and inspecting the green fruit very carefully.

Next time I’ll get top marks in the date quiz – I hope.

*Source: Sweet delights from a thousand and one nights – Habeeb Salloum, Muna Sallloum and Leila Salloum Elias

13 Comments leave one →
  1. May 21, 2018 5:44 am

    wow, very cool! I’m most familiar with medjool type, as they are the most widespread in the US stores – will be interesting to do a comparative tasting 🙂

    • May 23, 2018 7:20 pm

      The ajwa are my favourite so far. Deep treacle like flavour and less cloyingly sweet than other varieties. Off to the date market soon…

  2. May 21, 2018 3:46 pm

    Another fantastic piece Sally..

    • May 23, 2018 7:20 pm

      Thank you so much – I enjoyed writing and researching it

  3. May 22, 2018 11:03 pm

    Very interesting. I would have failed the quiz. 🙂 I have had two kinds of dates, I believe. The Deglet nour and the Mazafati (from Iran, maybe it is a medjoul). And also some giant Medjoul from California.

    • May 23, 2018 7:21 pm

      That’s another problem – that dates have different names in different countries or even areas!

  4. May 28, 2018 11:35 pm

    Oh, how fun. I adore dates. And we don’t have access to a huge variety.

    • May 29, 2018 2:58 pm

      It’s only until this season when I’ve really started delving into them that I realised what an amazing variety there is here.

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