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What they are:
Dates, the fruit of the date palm, have been cultivated for more than 4,000 years. Because they thrive in warm, arid climates, the Middle East and North Africa are the world's largest producing areas (though many of the dates eaten in North America come from California's Coachella Valley). Historically dates were considered the "bread of the desert," because they provided concentrated food energy that could easily be stored and carried on long journeys.
How to buy:
Fresh dates are available from September through May, peaking in November; dried dates are available year-round. Fresh dates last for about one month in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
Semi-dried dates (such as Medjool) are usually sold in boxes and will keep for several weeks if tightly wrapped in their container. Firm (but not hard) dried dates will keep, well wrapped, in the refrigerator for several months. Chopped and sugared or pitted and pressed blocks of dates are available year-round in the baking aisle of most grocery stores.
How to use:
In Middle East and North African cuisine, dates add richness and sweetness to a variety of savoury dishes, drinks, desserts and confections. They have also been fermented into vinegar, made into date honey (syrup) and coarse, dark, unrefined sugar (jaggery) and syrup (jaggery syrup). In North America, dates are generally associated with baking, especially loaves, cookies and steamed puddings.
Ramadan and Eid:
During Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, Muslims fast between sunrise and sundown, after which many break the daylong fast with dates and either water or milk, a tradition Mohammed followed during this time. The end of Ramadan is marked by Eid-ul-Fitr, a three-day celebration in which dates play a prominent part in traditional dishes.