The best way to eat dates: 6 innovative dishes and desserts that use the Middle East’s staple fruit

From cake and caviar to meat and pudding, dates pair well with a range of foods and flavours, say local chefs

While dates have been an inherent part of the Middle Eastern diet since time immemorial, it is only in recent years that they have been popularised for their superfood properties. And with good reason.

The fruit is high in potassium and fibre, rich in antioxidants that help prevent chronic illnesses and regulates blood sugar. Owing to their nutritional value, dates are a key ingredient in refined sugar-free, gluten-free and vegan recipes, including date bars and cookies. They are also extremely versatile, adding a caramelised flavour and depth to sauces, drinks and desserts.

Scroll above to see our gallery of innovative date dishes and desserts.

While dates are enjoyed across the world, a host of regional chefs and food bloggers are presenting this traditional staple in innovative ways.

Short ribs marinated in date balsamic at Cafe Bateel

The beef short ribs at Cafe Bateel are marinated in a six-year aged date balsamic vinegar that uses a blend of dates from Umbria farms in Italy and Al Qatt farms in Saudi Arabia
The beef short ribs at Cafe Bateel are marinated in a six-year aged date balsamic vinegar that uses a blend of dates from Umbria farms in Italy and Al Qatt farms in Saudi Arabia.

Cafe Bateel debuted its beef short ribs marinated in a date balsamic vinegar and slow-cooked for 12 hours, in July. Using a blend of dates sourced from Umbria farms in Italy and Al Ghat farms in Saudi Arabia, the six-year aged balsamic has a deep, mellow flavour. The ribs are served with a Mediterranean Basque stew of peppers, fondant potatoes and a side of fresh asparagus.

Dates have a sweet, musky aroma that complements the dense texture of chocolate pudding

Majed Ali, food blogger

“There are three flavour components in the dish – sweet, acid and fat,” explains Nicholas Cuadrado, culinary director at Cafe Bateel. “The mild sweetness of the date balsamic balances out the acidic peppers and the fatty piece of meat.”

As the next big trend, Cuadrado sees an increasing use of date sugar in Spanish lattes, coffee and speciality tea. He also anticipates an increased use of dates as a whole food in vegan and paleo diets, and for those who adhere to a combination of the two, or the pegan way of life.

Dhibs millefeuille at Cafe Bateel

The short ribs are not the only instance where the Cafe Bateel team have combined European cooking styles with date by-products. Dhibs mille feuille has been on Cafe Bateel’s dessert menu since the restaurant opened its doors in 2007. Using single-source dates such as ajwa, kholas or wanan, dhibs is the nutrient-­rich syrup extracted from the fruit nectar, known for its lingering aftertaste.

The French-inspired version is prepared by layering pastry sheets with dhibs-infused cream. “The dhibs tones down the sweetness and enhances the smoothness of the cream – making for a dessert that is light in texture and flavour,” explains Bernard Charles, head pastry chef at Cafe Bateel. As date-based desserts continue to thrive in the region, Charles anticipates customers seeking a balance of low-­calorie desserts that double as comfort food.

Cardamom date brownie pudding by Majed Ali

Speaking of comfort nosh, @TheCinnaman blogger Majed Ali’s cardamom date brownie pudding was inspired by a challenge on The Great British Bake Off to recreate a classic pudding.

Whenever I think of pudding, I always picture it being shared with family and friends gathered around. Warm out of the oven, it is the perfect hug in a bowl,” Ali says. The UAE blogger often uses Middle Eastern ingredients in his recipes as they make up a large part of his childhood and identity.

In this recipe, Ali folds mashed medjool dates into the brownie mixture. Cardamom, coffee and cocoa powder are used to elevate the chocolate flavour, while the pudding is garnished with pistachio and rose petals. “Dates have a sweet, musky aroma that complements the dense texture of the chocolate pudding,” he says.

Ali notes that date-based nut spreads are trending, and predicts dates used in innovative ice-cream flavours will gain popularity this summer

Date phirni at India Palace

Inspired by the essence of Ramadan, India Palace restaurant launched its khajur phirni during Eid Al Fitr. Across the South Asian subcontinent, phirni is traditionally made by adding ground long-grain rice to milk and slow-cooking the mixture until it becomes a thick, slightly gelatinous pudding. In India Palace’s version, cashew nut powder, cardamom powder and locally produced medjool date paste are added to the mix while it is simmering.

The caramelised taste of the date, the saltiness of the caviar and the musky-floral aroma of saffron is a treat

Saad Ghamy, chef, Beluga Restaurant and Lounge

The pudding is then poured into clay pots, cooled and garnished with pistachio slivers. “By the time it is consumed, the khajur phirni becomes thicker, but holds a delicate and creamy taste,” says recipe curator Rohith Muralya.

As dates regulate the body and are an excellent source of fibre and carbohydrates, Muralya hopes to see a shift in the traditional idea that dates should only be consumed during Ramadan.

While some chefs are incorporating dates in comfort food, others are bringing them to gourmet offerings.

Caviar and dates at Beluga

Chef Saad Ghamy at Beluga restaurant and lounge in the Mandarin Oriental Jumeira has created caviar aux dattes, an entree of medjool dates stuffed with Beluga’s signature caviar and garnished with saffron.

Despite the simple preparation, this appetiser offers a luxurious spin on the traditional staple. “The caramelised taste of the date, the saltiness of the caviar and the musky-­floral aroma of saffron is a treat when paired with drinks or simply as a dessert,” Ghamy says.

The inspiration for the dish comes from Ghamy’s Mauritian background and culinary expertise in French cuisine.

Caviar aux dattes at Beluga restaurant is an entree of medjool dates stuffed with caviar and garnished with saffron
Caviar aux dattes at Beluga restaurant has medjool dates stuffed with caviar and garnished with saffron.

As the pectin in dates helps to bind ingredients, Ghamy also frequently uses the fruit in his base for pie crusts and no-bake cookies.

Three-way date cake at Cafe Society

Similarly, executive chef Fernando Lima serves a decadent three-way date cake at Cafe Society in Dubai. The platter includes three desserts – a date cheesecake, a date cake and bavarois with a honey date glaze and walnut praline.

The inspiration behind this dessert plate is Lima’s culinary expertise in modern fusion. “I wanted to harmonise texture, aroma and taste to create a highly sensory-focused dining experience,” he explains.

Using locally produced barhi dates (likened to butterscotch in taste), the chef created a platter of complementary flavours of honey, walnut and praline.

As the latest date trend, Lima sees a spurt in people taking to grow their own dates and expects to see an emergence of customised date-based spreads, jams, sauces and pickles.

Updated: June 6, 2021 10:14 AM

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