A date fruit is the product of a date palm, a tree native to Northern Africa and the Middle East, although it is also cultivated in other parts of the world. In addition to being eaten fresh, the date fruit is dried and eaten whole as a snack or included in an assortment of desserts. Many regional Middle Eastern cuisines incorporate dates, as do Mediterranean cuisines like those of Italy and Greece. Dried dates are usually readily available in most markets, and fresh dates can be found in specialty markets in season.
A full grown date palm, or Phoenix dactylifera can reach 82 feet (25 meters) in height, with a spreading crown of greenish leaves. The date fruit grows in heavy clusters suspended under the leaves, and they are yellow in the early ripening stage, or kimri, the Arabic word for unripe. Some consumers enjoy date fruit in the next stage, khalal, meaning full sized but crunchy, while others wait for dates to reach rutab, ripe and soft. When the date fruit is allowed to sun dry on the tree, it is considered to be in the final tamr stage of ripening.
Numerous varietals of date fruit are grown including the coveted Black Sphinx date, along with more common noor and medjool dates. Depending on the variety, the date may be higher in natural sugars, or have an intense honey like flavor. As the date fruit dries, the sugars will concentrate in the dense, moist flesh, ultimately forming sugar crystals on the outside of the date. If a date has formed sugar crystals, it is usually less than ideal to eat, as the flesh will be dry and leathery.
The date fruit is one of the oldest cultivated tree crops, and has been grown for thousands of years. Dates pack well in bags, making them ideal for travelers, and the date palm grows in hostile environments to provide food, fuel, animal fodder, and shelter. Many people eat dates whole, or chop them up for dessert purposes. Often, dates are stuffed with either sweet or savory fillings and served as appetizers at Middle Eastern meals. Dates and mascarpone, along with dates and marzipan, are two popular stuffed date fruit desserts. In the Middle East, dates are frequently made into a paste which can be combined with other fruits and turned into candies or used to decorate food.
When selecting dates, look for plump, evenly colored specimens. All dates have a single long seed, but they can range in shape from oblong to round, depending on the cultivar. The date should not look dry or withered, and no crystals should appear on the exterior of the date. Fresh dates will last for up to two weeks under refrigeration, while preserved dates can last much longer, depending on how they are preserved.