To make biblical date honey, Middle Eastern Jews boil and press dates that range in color from yellow to brown. (photo by Barry A. Kaplan)
The Torah describes Israel as eretz zvat chalav u’dvash, the land flowing with milk and honey, although the honey was more than likely date honey, since beekeeping is not mentioned in the Bible.
The word honey in Hebrew, dvash, has the same numerical value as the words Av Harachamim, Father of Mercy. We hope that G-d will be merciful on Rosh Hashanah as He judges us for our year’s deeds.
To make silan, or biblical date honey, Middle Eastern Jews boil and press dates that range in color from yellow to brown. Apples can be dipped into the date honey in the hope for a sweet new year. In the markets in Israel during this season, one finds strings of these dates.
In the 2011 article “Cooking class, it’s a date, honey,” cookbook author Faye Levy writes: “For many Jews, apples are the Rosh Hashanah fruit par excellence. For me, fresh dates are the fruit that herald the coming of the New Year. As soon as I see the bright yellow dates at the market, I begin to plan my menus.
“I’ve heard people say they’re not fond of fresh yellow dates. I have learned to enjoy them at their khalal [initial] stage, when they are crunchy and less sweet, but I prefer to wait until they become honey-brown, [the] stage called rutab.”
There are several kinds of dates grown in Israel, including Medjool, which Levy notes “are delicious and easier to find than perfectly ripened yellow dates.”
But, regardless of type, dates are a traditional Rosh Hashanah food, and form part of the Sephardi seder, which dates to the Babylonian Talmud.
“An elaborate Maghrebi [the region made up of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya] specialty calls for nut-stuffed dates that are used to stuff a chicken or a large fish,” writes Levy. For Shabbat, she explains, dates might be added to dafina, which is a Sephardi meat stew cooked overnight to eat on Saturday lunch, or Moroccan hamin, another slow-cooked overnight stew for Saturday eating. The dates “contribute a subtle sweetness that mellows the flavor of the sauce. A dish from Baghdad from the Middle Ages calls for stewing lamb with dates and sweet spices.”
Silan, which Levy notes was brought to Israel by Iraqi Jews, is also known as date molasses or date syrup.
Varda Shilo, author of Kurdistani Cooking (in Hebrew), describes how to make it. Dried dates are simmered in water to porridge consistency, then the mixture is spooned into a cloth bag, moistened with more water and squeezed to remove the juice. This juice is simmered until thickened and is kept in jars.
Shilo explains that breakfast is the meal at which date honey is most often enjoyed in the Middle East, mixed with tahini (sesame seed paste) and served with bread.
Kinneret Farm silan makers suggest other ways of using date honey, such as adding it to stir-fried vegetables, as a sweetener for beverages, in sweet-potato pancakes, with an added dash of cinnamon.
“Dates are best known for their uses in sweets,” writes Shilo. “They are a favorite filling for the rich Middle Eastern cookies called ma’amoul and for rolled cookies resembling rugelach that are popular around the region.”
“In Persia,” write Reyna Simnegar, author of Persian Food from the Non-Persian Bride, “walnut-stuffed dates are a Rosh Hashanah treat. The stuffed dates are drizzled with a little syrup and sprinkled with cinnamon.
“Another popular way to serve dates is as a snack with tea.”
“Cooks in Egypt use the firm, fresh yellow dates to make jam,” says Levana Zamir in Cooking from the Nile’s Land (in Hebrew). “They also use them to make stuffed dates. First, they remove the dates’ very thin peel with a sharp knife and cook the dates in water until they are soft. Next, they pit the dates without cutting them in half.
Instead, they push the pit out with a hairpin so that each date can be stuffed with a blanched, peeled almond. Then they make a clove-and-lemon-flavored syrup from the dates’ cooking liquid. One by one, the stuffed dates are carefully added to the syrup, simmered and then cooled. The sweets are served with Turkish coffee and a glass of cold water. Making them is quite an undertaking but … these stuffed fresh dates are a delicacy fit for kings.”
Some Moroccans dip apples in honey and serve cooked quince, which is an apple-like fruit, symbolizing a sweet future. Other Moroccans dip dates in sesame and anise seeds and powdered sugar in addition to dipping apples in honey.
In her book The Foods of Israel Today, Joan Nathan writes about having lunch at Jerusalem restaurant Eucalyptus, when owner/chef Moshe Basson put a bowl of tahini “on the table and swirled in a date syrup called silan or halek, which he explained was a biblical ‘honey,’ one of the seven foods in the land of Canaan cited in the Book of Deuteronomy. Today, visitors can see a 2,000-year-old date-honey press, similar to an ancient wine press but smaller, near the Dead Sea at Qumran, the sites where, in 1947, a Bedouin youth found the Dead Sea Scrolls hidden in earthen jars.”
Nathan writes further that Ben-Zion Israeli, one of the founders of Kibbutz Kinneret, dressed as an Arab and, in 1933, went to Iraq and smuggled 900 date saplings back to Palestine. Over the years, with many trips, he brought back more than 7,000 saplings from Iraq, Iran and Kurdistan; about half took root. Shmuel Stoller later brought saplings from Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In the 1970s, Medjool and Deglet Noor varieties were introduced from the Coachella Valley in California.
If you are wondering about dates and your health, Judy Siegel-Itzkovich writes in the 2013 Jerusalem Post article “Local dates are best variety to fight disease”: “All nine varieties of dates grown in Israel and found on any supermarket shelf have characteristics that make them better than other varieties at helping protect those who consume them against cardiovascular diseases.
“This has just been demonstrated by Prof. Michael Aviram and colleagues from Haifa’s Rambam Medical Centre and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. The research was published in the prestigious Journal of Agriculture Food Chemistry.”
The research team found that the most effective varieties for health are yellow, Barhi, Deri, Medjool and Halawi dates, and that, despite there being about 20 different types of dates growing around the world, those from the Jordan Valley and the Arava are the best.
Aviram warned Siegel-Itzkovich, however, that silan won’t help much. “As silan is a sweet concentrate that does not contain fibres, it is far from the real thing,” he said.
The article also noted, “A study the researchers published in the same journal four years ago showed that eating three dates a day does not raise blood sugar levels in healthy people, but it does reduce blood triglycerides and even ‘improves the quality’ of blood cholesterol by reducing its oxidation. These effects reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and other vascular diseases, they said.”
Nonetheless, Aviram advised diabetics against eating a lot of dates, as they are high in sugar.
In addition to the health benefits of dates, the Post article also highlighted 2009 research Aviram had led, showing that “antioxidants from the group of polyphenols found in pomegranates, red wine and olive oil help remove plaque from inside the arteries. In the new research, the team found that dates can bring about the slowing and even regression of atherosclerosis (accumulation of fatty plaque) in the coronary arteries, and that eating one of the three specific date varieties is most effective.
“The material in dates has the clear ability to speed up the removal of excess cholesterol from endothelial cells inside blood vessels, the team said.”
While dates have been grown for thousands of years and their health benefits have been cited since ancient times, it is only in relatively recent history that science is confirming many of the beliefs.
High in fibre and also containing many minerals, such as potassium, zinc, magnesium and calcium, Aviram and his team, writes Siegel-Itzkovich, “recommend following a Mediterranean diet – with its variety of vegetables and fruit (including dates), fish, whole grains and olive oil – rather than eating just one or two ingredients, so that a whole range of oxidative factors that cause atherosclerosis can be neutralized.”
Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, foreign correspondent, lecturer, food writer and book reviewer who lives in Jerusalem. She also does the restaurant features for janglo.net and leads walks in English in Jerusalem’s market.