They're the traditional method for breaking fasts over Ramadan, they're exported from the Middle East all over the world and they're sold in fancy packs to tourists in the Gulf's airports. But what else do you know of the humble date? In time for this week's Liwa Date Festival, we take an in-depth look.
World's biggest daters
According to figures from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, Egypt was the world's largest date-producing country in 2011, churning out some 1.4 million metric tonnes of the fruit each year. Saudi Arabia was in second place, with 1.1 million and Iran third with 1 million. Although the UAE may have been fourth with 900,000, a quick glance at population levels shows that it's far and away the biggest producer per capita. In fact, in 2009, the UAE was recognised by Guinness World Records for growing the largest number of date palm trees in the world, 42 million.
Date back in time
The date palm, from which the date is borne, has a sizeable presence in the history annals. It is believed to have originated in Iraq and grown as early as 4000BC. It's also in the world record books, with a 2,000-year-old Judaean date palm seed becoming the oldest mature seed to grow into a viable plant in 2005. It was recovered from excavations at Herod the Great's palace in Israel. Attempts to regrow Herod's prize-winning geraniums have so far failed.
West Coast customs
Although the Arab world rules the roost when it comes to date production, dates are also grown in California, having been first introduced by the Spanish in the 18th century. To celebrate the harvest in Coachella Valley, where about 250,000 date palms are planted, the National Date Festival has been held in Indio since 1947.
Coincidentally, while Phoenix dactylifera (that's the Latin name for date palm) is the main draw at this event, Phoenix (the French indie-electro band) are popular headliners at Coachella's other famous festival.
If we were to tell you that up to 80 per cent of dates' flesh is made up of sugar, you might be, like, "Wow! I'm better off eating a packet of Haribo!" But hold on there. Dates might contain high amounts of natural sugars, but they are a low-glycemic index food and won't significantly raise blood sugar levels. Go on, put the sweets down.
Fruit and (lots of) fibre
As you're no doubt aware, fibre helps to lower cholesterol and fight and prevent obesity, heart disease and colorectal cancer. But did you know that just one pitted date contains 1.6 grams of fibre, or 6 per cent of your recommended daily intake? So eat 17 of those little guys and you're pretty much done for the day, fibre-wise. You might, however, want to stop there to avoid any digestive or flatulence issues.
Your low-fat friend
If you're all about skinny lattes and skinny jeans, you might want your dates skinny, too. One hundred grams of dates contains only a fraction of a gram of saturated fats and they contain absolutely no cholesterol at all. (Dates stuffed with chocolate - well, that's another thing.)
The Earth's multi-vitamin
When it comes to vitamins and minerals, the little date is something of a heavyweight, ranking high in vitamin A, vitamin B, folic acid, potassium, natural sodium, iron, magnesium, manganese and zinc. Although you only need a small amount of such elements in your body, it's dangerous to be depleted in any one, so snacking on dates can help you build up stores. Consider it a handy, tastier daily multi-vitamin.
Liwa's record date plate
In 2008, a submission by the organisers of the Liwa Date Festival for the world's largest dish piled high with dates fell foul of Guinness red tape because the plate was made of stainless steel rather than porcelain, crystal or clay. Thankfully, the world record bureaucrats finally made an 11th-hour U-turn and made a new category for the entry, meaning that the 12 metre by 2 metre platter became the world's largest stainless steel plate. Phew.
The Liwa Date Festival is held from tomorrow to next Thursday. Visit www.liwadatesfestival.ae
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