Kuwaiti writer and home cook Sarah Al-Hamad, a long time resident of London, broke new ground in Middle Eastern cookery writing with the publication in 2008 of her first book Cardamom and Lime: Recipes from the Arabian Gulf (review in Banipal magazine). Al-Hamad revealed a fascinating cuisine in which Indian, Persian and Turkish influences mingle with the traditional Bedouin diet of dates and dairy products.
Now with her second book, Sun Bread and Sticky Toffee: Date Desserts from Everywhere, Al-Hamad has elevated the traditional Gulf staple food, the date, to star status. The new book is, like the first, published by Interlink Publishing of Northampton, Massachusetts. And like the first book, Sun Bread and Sticky Toffee is beautifully and imaginatively produced. Its many striking pictures include photographs taken by Al-Hamad in date-producing locations across the globe.
Sarah Al-Hamad at the launch of Sun Bread and Sticky Toffee
Her interest in dates was reignited some three years ago by the English dessert sticky toffee pudding, of which a main ingredient is dates.
Al-Hamad wanted to know how, when and why this "quintessentially English" dessert came to have dates as its crucial ingredient. "That's what spurred me on and sent me off on this three-year journey of recipe testing, researching, talking to people and travelling."
Al-Hamad's version of sticky toffee pudding
Dried fruits entered the medieval kitchen in England kitchen around the 15th century when the first ships travelled from North Africa to England carrying dried nuts and fruits. "Medieval cookbooks from that time have recipes, especially custards and pies, that contain dried fruit and marry them with meats because in those days they considered that optimal health was attained by mixing cooling and warming foods."
As dates were considered cooling they would be mixed with meats like mutton or pigeon to create a wholesome recipe. "And so, thanks to trade, dried fruits were brought into the UK, and I think improved the British diet immeasurably"
Cartmel, a small town in Cumbria, England, claims to be the "home of the sticky toffee pudding". When Al-Hamad visited the town she found a lot of sticky toffee puddings being made and sold for consumption locally or abroad. But Cartmel is far from being the only place in England that claims to be home to the sticky toffee pudding. "I couldn't actually pinpoint where the dessert originates from," Al-Hamad said. "You can't help but imagine it being eaten at sumptuous banquets hundreds of years ago - but in fact the dessert first appeared on menus in the 20th century."
Al-Hamad's version of the pudding, Sticky Sponge Cake with a Toffee Sauce: King of Dates Pudding, is named after the medjool date. This large, fleshy, and sweet date, with its irresistible toffee notes, is regarded as "the king of dates".
The recipes in Sun Bread and Sticky Toffee are divided into five sections: breads and spreads; cookies, brownies and slices; date cakes; puddings, fudges and custards; and ice cream, milkshakes and stuffed dates. Each section includes a photo spread on a particular place of interest on Al-Hamad's "date trail".
With the date having been an important part of Middle Eastern diets since antiquity, Al-Hamad provides frequent historical references. In some cases she devises a modern interpretation of an ancient recipe. For example Pineapple Palace Cake: Upside-down in Babylon, topped with an attractive pattern of sliced dates and pineapple, is a lighter version of the rich palace cake that the Babylonians would make for the gods.
Al-Hamad's Sun Bread: Date, Spice and Honey Loaf is a "dense, fragrant, sweet bread", inspired by the ancient recipe from Upper Egypt. The ancient Egyptians, like the Mesopotamians, used wheat, barley or corn as a base for bread, and for special occasions added dates, spices, honey and seeds. Al-Hamad suggests her Sun Bread be eaten for breakfast "slathered with cream cheese, or any time with a cup of tea."
an amateur's rendering of Sun Bread: Date, Spice and Honey Loaf
I had a go at making Sun Bread, using a cake tin rather than the bread tin specified in the recipe. The recipe includes generous amounts of chopped dates, almonds, eggs and honey and 1 tablespoon each of cinnamon and nutmeg. The quantity of spices seemed disconcertingly large, but their presence proved subtle rather than overpowering.
Sun Bread gets its rise from the whites of six eggs beaten into soft peaks. The bread rose nicely, with the crust having a slightly honeyed gloss, and had a pleasing texture, something between a cake and a bread, with the crunch of almonds and succulence of dates. Al-Hamad says the Sun Cake keeps for days. However, it is so delicious that it is unlikely to survive for long in most households.
At the launch of Sun Bread and Sticky Toffee guests had the chance to sample three different types of date, as well as some of the goodies from the book including Desert Date Balls, Pinwheel Date Shortbread, and Bejewelled Haroset: Date, Walnut and Apricot Spread.
Desert Energy Balls [pictured below], or Hais, are an ancient sweetmeat for which Al-Baghdadi gave a recipe in his 1226 cookbook Kitab al-Tabikh. They consist of a paste of dates, almonds, pistachios and vegetable oil shaped into balls (or other shapes) and rolled in toasted sesame seeds, desiccated coconut or chopped pistachios.
The decorative and moreish Pinwheel Date Shortbreads are made by spreading a date and pistachio mixture on a rich pastry, rolling it up into a long sausage shape and slicing into biscuit shapes ready for baking.
Pinwheel Date Shortbreads
The trajectory of Al-Hamad's date trail was partly determined by the feasibility of visiting particular date-producing countries. "There are many other date-tastic places that I wasn't really able to visit," she said. Saudi Arabia is today's premier date centre, but was not easily accessible, so she went instead to the UAE. Nor was it practicable to do a research trip to Iraq, which was for much of the 20th century the world's 's leading date centre. The city of Basra in particular was famed for its extensive date plantations and the high quality of its dates. But decades of war, occupation and repression have devastated Iraq's date plantations and date production is only a fraction of what it once was.
Al-Hamad began her date trail in the indigenous home of the date, the Arabian Peninsula. In her slideshow there were pictures of Gulf date shops with their great mounds and displays of dates. People tend to buy dates in large quantities, especially before the month of fasting in Ramadan. Dates are customarily eaten as the first food to break the fast, and they are often given as charity.
The book includes a recipe for tamriya, a typical Khaliji date dessert in which dates are cooked with flour and vegetable oil. She calls her tamriya Desert Date Fudge, and finishes it off with slivered pistachio or chopped walnuts or almonds.
In the Gulf Al-Hamad came across date-flavoured flatbread, baked by Afghan bakers, and delicious with sharp white cheese. Another Gulf date bread is the Parsi dish Kajoor ni-ghari: Coconut and Date Stuffed Naans.
honeyed barhi dates
In the UAE Al-Hamad went to the Date Festival in the Liwa Oasis green belt of villages and date plantations on the edge of the Empty Quarter. "In the Gulf they say the date has 360 uses, and when I went to Liwa I understood why." In addition to the profusion of fresh dates on show, Al-Hamad found women weaving palm baskets, fans and mats. There were palm offshoots for sale, and palm-leaf houses to admire.
In Spain Al-Hamad visited Europe's largest date plantation in Elche, a half-hour drive from Alicante. In its heyday in Moorish times, in the 10th or 11th centuries Elche had about 1 million palm trees. Today the number has dwindled to a quarter of a million and the Palmeral of Elche is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
"One of the interesting things for me is that in the kitchen the Spanish did not really absorb the date although it grows very well there," Al-Hamad said. "There was a bit of distancing themselves I think, historically." They do have pan-fried almond-stuffed dates, and Elche makes a date liqueur. Elche is also world famous for the snack Delicias de Elche - almond-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon - although Al-Hamad did not find it on menus in the town.
The Mediterranean region is peppered with date palms, and there is evidence that dates were eaten up and down the Mediterranean. Roman soldiers battling the Persians ate dates, and inspired by an Italian classic Al-Hamad has a recipe for the stunning-looking Ruby Polenta Cake: Date and Polenta Cake with Pomegranate Syrup, topped with pomegranate seeds.
Al-Hamad's date trail concluded with a visit to New World date cultivation, in California. The 1920s date boom in California came about after the medjool date variety was struck down in North Africa by a disease. The US Department of Agriculture was asked to help, and it took 11 healthy offshoots to Nevada and planted them out to see how they would do. They thrived, and grew into the newest date producing centre. Al-Hamad was interested to find that date producers in California still use the traditional Arabic words to describe different stages of maturity of the date.
Southern California's Coachella Valley is the home of the date palm in the USA. At the valley's heart is the town of Indio which hosts the National Date Festival every February. Al-Hamad says that no visit to the valley is complete without a stop at the Shields Date Garden, which started in 1924. A quirky 15-minute film The Romance and Sex Life of the Date "playing here since the 1950s, sets the mood as the garden's signature 'blonde' and 'brunette' dates are sampled and a deliciously refreshing date shake is enjoyed."Al-Hamad's recipe for Highway Date Shakes starts involves blending dates, milk, and ice cream or frozen yoghurt, and adding adds sesame seeds, coffee powder or smooth peanut butter.
One of the most moving things Al-Hamad found during her research was that "the date palm is very human: there's a female and a male, only the female bears fruit - the pollen is gathered from the male tree and sprinkled onto the female tree - and they have an almost human average life span of 75 years. They have little baby offshoots that are then planted and grow into adult palm trees. They are very sociable, they like to be in company, they can overheat, they can grow sick."
by Susannah Tarbush