About 20 years ago, my dad brought back a date tree seed after a trip to the Middle East. He lovingly planted it in a large planter in our kitchen in hopes that it would grow and blossom into a beautiful tree bearing his favourite little fruit. I was an (impatient) child then so you can imagine my reaction when my dad told me the tree would grow for years and eventually have to be moved outside and planted in the earth and then finally — some 18 years later — it would grow into a fruit-bearing plant. 20 years later and the little sucker has remained as barren as the day it was planted. The climate in North America is simply not conducive to growing dates which require a warm, dry climate. Thank heaven for imported fruit, am I right? 😉
Don’t be put off by the coarsely wrinkled appearance of dates. Dates are delicious! They’re sweet and creamy with a chewy flesh and have a subtle, but rich, nutty flavour. Allow yourself to be taken in by the allure of the aromatic date.
Dates found in North America are always imported as the date palm on which the dates grow must have full sun. Iraq is the world’s largest exporter of this sweet fruit but the use of dates in recipes transcends all cultures of the world. This date chutney (as well as Mint Coriander Chutney) is one that is used to accompany sweet and salty snacks such as Bhel Puri, Chaat Papdi, Potato Cutlets, and the ever-celebrated Samosa! This chutney is a killer dip for crispy, flavourful samosas made with a flaky pastry and filled with delicious meaty fillings! The dates in the chutney are rehydrated with water, and kept uncooked so it’s bursting with flavour and incredibly fresh! The chutney contains no oil at all and calls for unrefined brown sugar, so it’s quite healthy and can be enjoyed without guilt!
This chutney is sweet, but not cloyingly sweet, and packs a spicy punch. When you get your first taste of this, the first flavour note that greets you is earthy and sweet. The note that follows is dominated by the flavour of the cilantro and then…wham! That heat from the peppers slams your taste buds. Despite that mild assault on your senses, the final note left lingering on your tongue is sweet and satisfying.
There are so many date varieties to choose from – over a hundred, in fact! I opted to you use a “Barni” variety this time but “Medjool” dates (a variety which is found in supermarkets and even health food stores the continent over) will work equally as well. “Barni” is a variety of date that is said to be “soft and dry” which I presume to mean that it is chewy enough to eat straight out of the box but has just enough ‘dryness’ to it that it needs to be rehydrated in water to make it soft and pliable for chutney. “Medjool” dates are larger in size and a bit softer than “Barni”. “Anbara” and “Halawi” dates will work equally as well for this chutney.
So, I’ve decided y’all need a lesson in date foodology. I’m no authority on the matter, but I have consumed my fair share of dates over the years, presumably enough to qualify me to speak authoritatively about this yummy super fruit! I reckon a little food for thought is warranted here and I’m happy to dedicate a portion of the blogosphere to showcase my (admittedly limited) knowledge about this complex little fruit which is used in appetizers, entrees and desserts around the Middle East, Iran, Israel, Spain, India, Pakistan, Morocco, France, and even North America.
Health Benefits of Dates:
Dates have a concentrated natural sugar content which makes them a fantastic source of instant and natural energy. They’re rich in potassium (twice as much as bananas), protein, iron, and even calcium (six times as much as bananas)! One pitted date will run you about 60 calories and contains no fat. They’re brimming with all sorts of lovely and essential things like fiber and vitamins. They’ve even been known to promote digestive and heart health.
Types of Dates:
Essentially, dates can be divided into 3 categories: Soft dates which are almost always eaten fresh and mild in flavour. Hard dates which are dry and fibrous and have a sweeter flavour. Hard dates have a very long shelf-life and predominate in most parts of North Africa. They were commonly relied on by nomads as the ideal survival snack because they rarely spoil. Finally, there are Semi-Dry dates. These are what we – in North America – have come to know as dates. They have the perfect level of sweetness with a softer and chewier texture.
Stages of Date Ripeness: Dates can be consumed in various stages of its life – from its raw form to ultra ripe and soft. Dates are often categorized by their degree of ripeness. Dates essentially evolve along these 4 stages:
Stage 1 (known as Khalal in Arabic): the fruit is green and inedible
Stage 2 (known as Bisr in Arabic): the fruit begins to develop some colour and the sugars start developing
Stage 3 (known as Rutab in Arabic): the texture begins to soften and the colour darkens
Stage 4 (known as Tamr in Arabic): they’re ready for eating!
Varieties of Dates:
Apparently there are hundreds of date varieties the world over. Below are ones that are most commonly sold in North America. This list is not exhaustive by any means but gives you some idea of the most popular date varieties. Note that even the soft varieties can be converted into dry dates if left to ripen on the trees in a sufficiently hot and dry climate.
Anbara – these are soft, large, premium dates with a high sugar content and a very generous flesh
Barni – these are caramel coloured, soft, and are often as sweet as candy
Deglet Noor – these are amber coloured, semi-dry and nutty, and are only not overly sweet; these are among the most widely grown variety
Halawi – these are caramel coloured, very sweet and very sticky; they are semi-soft
Honey dates – these are caramel coloured with a creamy in texture with a honey flavor; these are similar to Deglet Noor, and melt-in-your mouth
Khadrawi – these contain less sugar than other varieties so they are perfect for the sugar-conscious
Medjool – these are large, sweet and very soft with a rich flavour; this variety is commonly consumed in North America
Thoory – an unmistakably dry date known as a “bread” date which is dry and thick; they have a very long shelf life so they are perfect to pack for hikes or camping trips for a quick energy boost
Zahidi – these are somewhat dry and less intense than other varieties but they are still sweet.
Buying, storing, and preparing dates: When buying dates, look for ones which are plump and soft, and not overly shrivelled.
Store dates in an air-tight container in a cool, dry place for up to 6 months. The dates will progressively lose some of their moisture over time but as long as they’re not showing signs of mold or crystalization, they are good to eat. Dates kept in a refrigerator can last up to a year.
Dates are inherently sticky, and their stickiness factor only increases when they are cut up. Using scissors dipped in warm water to break down the dates is a better alternative to chopping them with a knife. If your recipe calls for chopping the dates in a food processor without adding liquid, add a small amount of oatmeal to the bowl first and process it into a powder before adding the dates. The excess oatmeal flour can be shaken through a colander and discarded. If the recipe allows you to add water to the food processor, chopping the dates will be relatively easy. If your dates have melded into a soft mass, microwave them in intervals at low-medium power for a total of 40 seconds until they come apart and are pliable.
You want to ensure that all the stems and pits are removed from the dates. When I last made this chutney, an errant seed found its way into the mix and made a terrible rattling noise as I blended up the mixture. The seed finally ended up stuck to one of the blades, luckily, but it wasn’t a pleasant thing, so be sure to remove all the seeds!
This chutney is not shy on spice. Simply put, it is hot. However, the sweetness of the dates and the brown sugar help to cut some of that spiciness. You can easily adjust the amount of chillies you use if you’re making this for a crowd that might not enjoy spicy food or if you’re making it for children. If you’re concerned about the level of spiciness, simply add 1/2 cup of chillies to the mixture and taste before deciding whether or not to add another 1/2 cup of chillies to spice it up!
You can use any type of brown sugar, however, I prefer a dark brown sugar as it’s easily found at the supermarket and the molasses in the sugar really lends a nice sweetness to the spicy chutney. The tamarind concentrate is a thick, dark paste which can be found in just about any grocery store or supermarket. It is often used in Indian and Thai cooking, so you may even find it in the International aisle of your supermarket.
This chutney comes together in minutes. Simply puree the mixture together until everything is finely chopped and incorporated.
I pureed this mixture in a food processor but the mixture started to seep out and down the sides of the bowl as I added liquid towards the end. Before the water went in, the mixture was close to the top of the bowl so adding water as the blades were spinning caused the liquid to splash about. This mixture might be better suited to a large blender or a food processor that has a very large capacity. You’ll need to add between 4 1/2 – 5 cups of water depending on how much water your dates absorbed. You’ll want to make sure the consistency of the chutney is thin enough to be considered a chutney to dip delicious fried goodies in, but thick enough to coat the item which you intend to dip! If the mixture is too watery, it’ll just slide right off whatever you’re dipping into it.
My 8-year-old nephew couldn’t wait for me to finish taking a photograph before diving right in to sample some of the spicy chutney (he’s a brave one!) with a freshly made samosa!
Spicy Date Chutney
1 kg unpitted soft, dry dates (Barni, Medjool and Halawi are great options but others can be substituted)
1 cup fresh green chilies (I used Thai chilies which had orange+green chillies – add less if you prefer a less spicy chutney)
2 cups fresh coriander/cilantro
2 1/2 tablespoons cumin seeds (also known as ‘zeera’)
3 tablespoons salt
3 tablespoons tamarind concentrate/paste
3/4 cup brown sugar
4 1/2 – 5 cups water
Prepare the dates: Place the dates in a large bowl full of water, making sure all of the dates are submerged. Allow the dates to soak for 24 hours (up to 48 hours) until they become plump and soft. Rinse the dates in a colander, discarding the water. Pit the dates, removing both the little stem and the pits. Discard the stems and the pits. Set aside the pitted dates.
Prepare the chutney: Remove the stems from the chilis and set aside. Wash the coriander/cilantro and set aside. In a large food processor or blender, add the dates, chillies, coriander/cilantro, brown sugar, tamarind paste, salt, and cumin seeds. [Note: you must make this in a large food processor or blender to prevent it from over flowing or you may need to make this in two batches — see above notes/images for details]
Puree the mixture for a few minutes until fine. There may still be some texture to it. Slowly add 4 cups of water than add more water (up to about 5 cups) until the desired consistency is reached. Pour into a serving bowl and enjoy with your favourite samosas, pakoras, or other savoury Indian snacks!
This chutney can be stored in the fridge for up to 2 weeks (no longer than that as there is no oil or vinegar in the mix to extend its shelf-life). It can also be frozen for up to 6 months. When you’re ready to enjoy it, simply defrost it, add a little water to it as necessary, and enjoy!
Yield: approx 1/2 gallon (2 quarts or just over 2 litres)