Dates are an integral part of the Arab culture and UAE treats you to many varieties of it.
Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is famous among cricket fans for the epic 1998 cricket match between India and Australia. It also needs no introduction when it comes to its malls lined with gold, perfumes and glitzy accessories.
But when I visited Sharjah, I learnt about its sweet connection in the form of dates. Soft or chewy, light brown or black in colour, a few millimeters to the size of a finger — there is a mind-boggling range of dates one can choose from here.
After all, UAE has officially been recognised as the leading cultivator of date palms in the world. It has 42 million trees, with a Guinness World record stamp as the most global green when it comes to date palms. UAE has over 120 species of dates.
So while date palms abundantly dot the landscape of this Emirate, dates rule the palate. As we drove around, date palms set amidst well manicured lawns greeted us almost everywhere. Some of the date palms were covered and our guide explained that these were the replanted ones.
My initiation into the world of dates began at the reception of the hotel in Sharjah where I was staying. A platter was placed alongside dainty cups and a jug of the famous Arabic coffee.
You are supposed to bite the dates and sip on the coffee. The dates are a natural sweetener to balance out the strong bitter coffee which is had without milk. Coffee is an integral part of Arabic hospitality and is served at the beginning when a guest visits. It is repeatedly offered until the guest signals that they have had enough. The signal is rocking the cup from side to side.
Mejdoul, sabaka which is a comparatively dry date, khodri, safawi, sukkari, anbar and naptet ali are some of the varieties of dates available in Sharjah. Some dates come from Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Palestine.
Did you know that Sharjah has special rooms which are referred to as medbasas in which there are grooves in the floor. The purpose of these grooves is to collect date molasses or dibs.
The traditional process starts with piling up of bags containing dates, one on top of the other, above the grooved floor. Because of the combined weight of the bags, the dates are pressed and result in molasses which are drained between the grooves.
The molasses are collected in a pot and then sold. When a guest visits the home of a local, they are normally served coffee, dates or dibs. These are offered on a mat made of palm and covered with a food cover made of palm to keep dust, flies and insects at bay.
In Sharjah, apart from dibs, I also got to sample some interesting avatars of the fruit like Betheetha, date powder and date paste. Betheetha is a sweet made of dates and fried flour, date powder is the powdered version of dates while date paste is made with dates mixed with oil, saffron and fennel.
In syrup and toffees, dates are stuffed with almonds and coated with milk chocolate. Dates stuffed with almonds and cashews and garnished with sesame, and a drizzle of date syrup are so delicious that it is difficult not to succumb.
And there is no need to resist as dates are a powerhouse of health and medical benefits.
They help treat anaemia as they contain iron, sustain bones and teeth as they contain phosphorus and calcium, good amounts of Vitamin A and B1 thereby helping in maintaining eyesight and treating liver diseases, jaundice, cracking of the lips and dry skin and breaking of the nails.
Dates are also laxative and have anti-constipation properties as they contain cellulose fibres. Dates are specially beneficial for pregnant women as they help to strengthen the muscles of the uterus during the last trimester of pregnancy and subsequently labour. The iron, calcium and vitamin A content in them helps in the growth of the child including its blood and marrow.
So whether it is Rolla Market, Irani Market, Royal Dates at Corniche or the entire line of shops selling dates at the Al Jubail Vegetable and Fruit Market in Sharjah, you can taste and get some back home to treat friends and family.