Dates are an iconic symbol of Arabian hospitality and an essential part of life in the kingdom. Case in point: Upon entering a Saudi home or office, you will often be welcomed with an offering of dates and qahwa (Arabic coffee). Date palms are mentioned 22 times in the Quran, and the Prophet Muhammad once said that a home with dates is never poor — the nutritious fruit has been a staple of the Saudi diet since ancient times.
The kingdom is now the world’s third-largest producer of dates, which have been cultivated and traded throughout the region since 7000 B.C. As vital to the economy as they are to the diet, it’s no wonder that the emblem of Saudi Arabia features a date palm set between two crossed swords. The 800,000 metric tons harvested each year must be hand-picked as each fruit matures. Once picked, the dates are allowed to ripen in four stages: kimri (unripe, green), khalal (full-size, crunchy, yellow), rutab (ripe, soft) and tamr (ripe, sun-dried, dark); they are enjoyed at every stage.
During the month of Ramadan, Prophet Muhammad was said to break his fast with dates and water, and many Muslims around the world follow suit, as dates offer readily available carbs for a quick boost after a long day of fasting, plus protein and fiber for slower digestion, which prevents a sugar crash.
If you know the types of dates you want to buy, you can find them in a hypermarket, such as Carrefour. You can also sample dates and purchase them as gifts at a date boutique, such as Talah Al-Jood or Bateel, where the fruit is displayed like fine jewelry and packaged in elegant boxes to match. Arguably the best way to shop for dates, however, is the traditional way. Head to any city’s old souq (market), where you can keep an eye out for freshly harvested dates from August to November, talk to vendors about their unique varieties and bargain for the best price.
Although you could spend much of your trip tasting dates, these 10 varieties should be at the top of your list: