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.
Free of fat, cholesterol and sodium, dates are a nutritional powerhouse. Dates are richer than bananas in potassium, which can aid in muscle recovery and help regulate blood pressure. They are full of essential minerals and vitamins, including calcium, copper, magnesium, vitamin K and vitamin B, and they are packed with anti-inflammatory properties to promote brain health and antioxidants to help fight disease. Some studies have even shown that eating dates every day during the last months of pregnancy can promote natural labor.
Beyond their nutritional benefits, dates are delicious. In addition to the commonly known Medjool date, there are more than 300 varieties grown in Saudi Arabia, each with unique flavors and textures.
You can find them stuffed with nuts or candied fruits, mashed and baked into pastries and cookies, and even incorporated into savory rice dishes. But many Saudis say that eating dates unadorned remains the best way to appreciate them.
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.
If you get the chance, make a special trip to the Souq Al Tumor, the central date market in Medina, where you’ll find more than 100 vendors selling over 150 varieties of dates. When tasting, always be sure to split a date in half with your fingers to remove the seed and to ensure it is free of unwanted pests.
Although you could spend much of your trip tasting dates, these 10 varieties should be at the top of your list: