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Cooking with Red Dates

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The Cantonese call them hong zhou, but to many of us, they are red dates and they are quickly earning another title: superfood. The red date is not just full of nutrients, though; it also has a rich history and cultural significance within the Chinese community.

This plump, deep red fruit is popularly called a “date” because of its similar texture and size to the Middle Eastern brown date. The red date comes from a buckthorn shrub or tree that can grow anywhere from four feet (1.2 metres) to 40 feet (12 metres) in height, and as wide as 33 feet (10 metres).

The red date is actually a jujube fruit that originated in China, specifically the Xinjiang region. The author of this article from Abakus Food notes that the fruit has been cultivated in China for around 4,000 years, but the GB Times pushes it back even further, to some 8,000 years ago. Red date wine was popular during the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE), but later the red date became mostly known for its use in traditional medicine, featuring in The Compendium of Materia Medica, a 16th-century herbology volume.

The red date tree is now grown in Europe and even Australia and is popular in part because of its hardiness. The fruit is pretty durable, too: if stored properly or even frozen, it will keep for six months or even almost a year. But with its delicious taste and nutritious properties, it tends not to stay in storage for too long!

Why choose the red date?

According to the United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service, the red date is high in vitamin C and iron and is packed with flavonoids, antioxidants and amino acids – all of which are vital for good health.

It’s because of these properties that Chinese regularly boil soup with red dates, or make red date tea to help improve blood circulation. This tea is typically served to new mothers, or for those in need of an energy boost. Those suffering from low blood pressure or anaemia are encouraged to regularly drink red date tea or include the fruit in their diet.

Numerous studies, including this one from the University of Rouen in France, have examined the benefits of the red date’s rich antioxidant content. Research and scientific studies have found that the red date helps combat insomnia, provides relief to gastrointestinal problems and has anti-inflammatory properties. Some have declared it an “adaptogen” because of its apparent ability to mould or adapt to the body’s needs, particularly related to stress.

But what does it taste like?

The red date has a deep, earthy flavour and provides a wholesome finish to soups or tea. It has quite a high sugar content, so skip sugar or other sweeteners when making red date tea. Aside from savoury soups, feel free to make a vegetarian version adding pumpkin and a touch of brown sugar with your red dates. The seed of the fruit is typically removed before cooking or eating.

The red date can also be eaten dried when it is sweet and chewy. Its chewy fruit has a sweet flavour and often used to sweeten smoothies, cakes and even porridge. A popular recipe is to tear the red date as a topping for your peanut butter toast.

In Chinese culture, the red date symbolises fertility and is often featured in weddings, where it is served to the bride and groom in a soup together with peanuts, lotus seeds and longan. According to Teasenz, this practice symbolically encourages them to have children quickly.

And over in Europe, the Italians make red date into a liqueur called brodo di giuggiole that is considered good for health and also used in religious ceremonies. A recipe for this liqueur can be found here.

Try it for yourself

If you’re up for trying something different, here are some interesting ways to add red date into your culinary repertoire.

Photo by Mona Mok from Unsplash

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