Stone steps winding down a narrow lane lead to Misfah Old House, a small inn located in the mountainous village of Misfat Al Abryeen, Oman. To welcome his guests, Haitham Al-Abri offers sweet, sticky dates and a tiny cup of cardamom-scented coffee.
At Misfah, as in all Omani homes, dates are intrinsic to the culture of this Arabian Peninsula country. They are a sign of hospitality, served both in greeting and after every meal.
"Dates and coffee are served at all events — whether that be a funeral or a wedding or just a family meeting," Al-Abri says. "They are something essential."
Dates are a popular food across the Middle East, but in Oman they hold a place of honor in the national culture and cuisine. Palm orchards form lush oases in an otherwise harshly dry environment; their fruit provides daily sustenance. Both the National Museum in the capital city of Muscat and the museum at the Nizwa Fort, a 17th-century citadel and popular tourist attraction, have exhibits dedicated to the majestic date palm.
Locals in the Middle East have been consuming dates for some 6,000 years. Just 15 of the small, sweet fruits per day provide enough calories and nutrients for human survival. Dried dates can last for, well, something close to forever. (Take that, Twinkies!) Replete with fiber, potassium, copper, manganese, magnesium and several vitamins, dates were an especially important source of nutrition not only for Oman's desert Bedouin, but also for the country's famed sailors and traders, whose legendary travels have been documented as far back as 120 B.C.
Dates continue to be an important crop in Oman today. The country ranks among the top 10 date producers in the world, with 8 million palm trees yielding more than 250 indigenous varieties. Nearly 80 percent of Oman's production, however, comes from 10 cultivars. Farth (also called fard) is perhaps the most common, chocolate-colored and tender, with a bit of chew to it. Khalas is the most valuable variety: It is yellow when fresh, caramel in both flavor and color when dried, and has a melt-in-the-mouth texture. Local favorite khunaizi is large and red when fresh, and is renowned for its succulence.
"Each family in Misfah has date trees," says Al-Abri, who also offers village and agricultural walking tours. The extended family, who jointly run the guest house, boasts more than 400 date palms in the orchards encircling the village, with each nuclear family claiming at least 20 palms. Each tree yields up to 270 kilos of dates annually.
To fertilize palm trees and harvest the dates, men wrap a harness called a habul (made of palm fiber rope, naturally) around their waists and scale up the trees, which can grow up to 75 feet tall. Village men such as Al-Abri all know how to climb the trees, but nowadays they also bring in farmers from Bangladesh to help – especially during harvest season, which begins in mid-May. According to Al-Abri, once harvest begins, drying the dates takes no more than two or three days in Oman's scorching heat (temperatures can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer.)
The date palms are irrigated with a system nearly as old as the trees' cultivation. Called falaj (aflaj in the plural), it is a network of water canals that utilizes moveable dams and the force of gravity to evenly distribute the water among the local population. While watchtowers were built in old times to protect the canals, the true underpinning of the system is a shared value of community and mutual dependence.
"At the village majlis (council), a schedule is set to ensure that every field receives enough water," Al-Abri explains, as a Bangladeshi worked moves the stones in the canal to redirect the water to a different section of the orchard. There are more than 3,000 aflaj in Oman, five of which have been collectively named as a World Heritage Site.
Omanis value more than just the fruit of the date palm. Every part of the tree is put to use. Fronds are lashed together to make sun shades and fences. Leaflets are braided into baskets, mats, date sacks and fans. Palm fiber is turned into rope and twine. Trunks of old trees become ceiling rafters, fuel for the fire and even furniture.
But the most important part of the date palm is the fruit. "In Omani cuisine, dates are used in a variety of dishes, such as mardhuf bread, madluka and many more," says Al Jahdhami, executive sous chef at the Oman Convention & Exhibition Centre.
Madluka is an Omani dessert made from date paste mixed with ghee and sesame seeds. Oman's most famous sweet treat, however, is halwa, a gelled date pudding sprinkled with nuts. Dates are also used in savory dishes: sprinkled in salads, cooked with fish or turned into a sauce for slow-cooked meat. Fresh dates are eaten plain or dusted with cumin. Dried ones are used to make "date honey" (called dibs in Arabic), a syrup which also incorporates water and cardamom.
"Dates are also important to Omani culture because they are mentioned in many occasions in the Quran," Al Jahdhami explains.
Along with banana, pomegranate, grape and fig (a pretty delicious assortment), dates are considered the "fruit of heaven." The prophet Mohammad is said to have urged Muslims to eat dates, and across the Arab world, dates are served to break the fast each evening during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins later this May.
No matter when or how the dates are served, one thing is clear: The taste is indeed heavenly.
This recipe is courtesy of Malik Al Jahdhami, executive sous chef at the Oman Convention & Exhibition Centre.
Makes 10 pieces of bread.
About 10 oz (300g) of dates
About 5 cups (600g) all-purpose flour*
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon (100 ml) oil or ghee
About 1 1/3 cup (300 ml) water
About 2/3 cup (150 ml) warm water
*Flour "settles" in the jar or bag, so stir it with a knife prior to measuring to "loosen" it. Next, lightly spoon the flour into the measuring cup and level off to ensure accuracy.
Soak the dates in warm water till softened. Mash the dates and remove seeds.
In a mixing bowl, sift the flour and salt. Add 1 1/3 tbs (20 ml) of oil and the mashed dates. Add water gradually while mixing the dough, till all the ingredients are well combined, forming a firm dough.
Let the dough rest for 20 minutes.
Cut the dough into 10 to 12 pieces and form into balls. Roll each ball individually into a flat round, brush oil on the top, then fold it into a square shaped parcel (take the right end and fold it about a third to the left, take the left end and fold it about a third to the right, repeat with top and bottom.)
Once done, roll each parcel into a flat square and place it on a heated pan with a little oil, browning each side.