We’re all familiar with dates; that famous fruit that becomes more popular around the month of Ramadan. Dates are an integral part of Middle East cuisine and a blessed fruit in Islam. They have been a staple food of the Middle East and Southeast Asia for millennia. Whether you enjoy them during the holy month or year-round, dates are nature’s gift to satisfy even the sweetest tooth. Their exact origin is unknown, but archeologists suspect that they originated from the region between ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. There is evidence of date cultivation in Arabia from the 6th millennium BCE.

Dates grow on palm trees, which can grow as high as seventy-five feet tall. They grow singly or forming a clump with several stems from a single root system. Dates are wind-pollinated but can be pollinated manually by skilled farmers or using wind machines. Date palm leaves are also big, measuring thirteen to twenty feet long, with a long spine sprouting as much as 150 leaflets. The date fruit is oval-cylindrical shaped and can be 1.2 to 2.8 inches long. They contain one single, slender stone. When ripe, their colors range from red to bright yellow and when dry, from amber to dark brown or almost black. Of course, they are famous for their sweetness, containing as much as 75% sugar when dried. Dates are a naturally dried fruit, similar to raisins. They remain safe to eat for up to a year in your cupboard or pantry. Frozen, they can keep indefinitely.

Most dates are sold dried, but fresh dates are available during the August/September harvest season. A wrinkled skin indicates they’re dried and a smooth skin means they’re fresh. In America, the most consumed dates are the Medjool date and Deglet Noor date.

There is a dizzying array of date types, at least 3,000, but they are classified into three groups: soft, semi-dry, and dry. Some examples of soft dates are Barhi, Halawy, Medjool, and Khadrawy. Barhi dates have a thin, crackling skin and chewy flesh that tastes like butterscotch candy. Halawy are firm and chewy with a thick, soft golden flesh and a sweet, caramel-candy flavor. Medjools are considered the king of dates! They are deep amber-brown with a soft crinkly skin and rich sweet flavor. Date lovers are always excited to see Medjool dates passed around moments before breaking the Ramadan fast. Medjools are expensive because their cultivation is a complex and labor-intensive process. After hand pollination, the trees must be covered in nets to protect them from dust and rain. The crop must be thinned and hand-harvested again and again because the dates, even on one tree, all ripen at different times. Khadrawy dates are a smaller date with a high moisture content, less sugar, and a milder flavor than Medjool dates.

Semi-dry types of dates are Deglet Noor, Zahdi, Dayri, and Ajwa. These dates have many fans as some prefer the lightly sweet taste of semi-dry dates compared to the richer, bolder taste of soft dates. If the Medjool is considered the king of dates, Deglet Noor is the queen. They are more fibrous and have a firmer flesh and a sweet, delicate flavor. Both Deglet Noor and Zahdi dates are golden brown, whereas Dayri dates are dark brown to black. Ajwa dates are from Saudi Arabia and are considered the favorite date of the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him [PBUH]). They are smaller, wrinkly, and almost black with a soft, fruiter taste. They have a melt-in-your-mouth quality and being a favorite of the Prophet (PBUH), ajwa dates are quite popular.

Dry dates are not as plentiful as semi-dry or soft date cultivars. They are devoid of moisture, which makes them appear shriveled and hard. These have not been deliberately dried. Thoory dates, or bread dates, are called that because of their dry, firm, pastry-like texture, which makes them suitable for baking. They have a semi-sweet, nutty flavor.

Dates are mentioned at least twenty times in the Quran. While Mary (Peace Be Upon Her) is in labor, she is commanded by God to “…shake toward you the trunk of the palm tree; it will drop upon you ripe, fresh dates.” (Quran 19:25) Dates are also described as one of the many fruits of paradise. “…And from the palm trees–of its emerging fruit are clusters hanging low…” (Quran 6:99) The Prophet (PBUH) said, “If somebody takes some Ajwa dates every morning, he will not be affected by poison or magic on that day till night.”—Sahih al-Bukhari 5768, Book 76, Hadith 82. Anas bin Malik (may God be pleased with him) narrated: “The Messenger of Allah (PBUH) would break the fast with fresh dates before performing Salat. If there were no fresh dates then (he would break the fast) with dried dates, and if there were no dried dates then he would take a few sips of water.”—Jami’ at-Tirmidhi 696: Book 8, Hadith 15.

It’s easy to see how the date palm has become a symbol of life in the Middle East. As a staple food that has provided nourishment for many, from weary desert travelers to those seeking to satisfy their sweet cravings, dates have amazing health benefits. While dates do contain a lot of sugar, when eaten in moderation, they are a better alternative than eating empty-calorie snacks. Yaqutullah Ibraheem Muhammad, RN, says, “The health benefits of dates include providing an energy boost as well as [being] a good source of iron and fiber. Dates are rich in nutrients, including fiber and antioxidants. Those essential nutrients include vitamin B-6, magnesium, and potassium.”

The study The Effect of Dates in Late Pregnancy on the Duration of Labor in Nulliparous Women, published by the National Institutes of Health, found that “According to the results of this study, consuming dates in late pregnancy was effective in decreasing the length of labor processes and reducing the need to oxytocin for labor acceleration. Moreover, it is recommended to consume dates in women without contraindications.”

Dates have a myriad of uses in cuisine and non-consumable products. Dry or soft dates are eaten out-of-hand. They may be pitted and stuffed with such tasty fillings such as almonds, pecans, walnut, pistachios, or tahini. They can also be filled with candied orange, candied ginger, and candied lemon peel. And if that’s not tempting enough, chocolate-covered dates are a recent phenomenon making sales of decadent desserts all around the world.

Dates are also used in sweet, savory dishes like Moroccan tajine and in Arabic cookies called ka’ak. Date syrup is used as a substitute for honey. Dates can also be used to make molasses, mustard, marmalade, and jams. Sparkling date drink is a non-alcoholic drink used for celebrations. Date balsamic vinegar is great as a salad dressing or to marinate vegetables and meats.

Besides eating them, dates can be dried, ground, and mixed with grain to form a nutritious stock feed for animals and in Pakistan they even use the syrup from ripe dates to coat leather bags and pipes to prevent them from leaking.

Kelly Crosby is an artist and writer in Atlanta, Georgia. You can find her work at www.wagingbeauty.com.