Islamic celebrations follow a lunar calendar meaning that they fall on different dates every year. As such most food traditions tend to be based on year round staples rather than seasonal produce. Miloud, or Mawlid Al Nabi, the prophet Mohammed’s birthday, is welcomed every year with a hearty barley based porridge (aseeda) topped with date syrup (ruub) and olive oil, or honey and butter, as they are traditionally paired. Barley and dates form part of the basic Libyan pantry and are well suited to the rural and nomadic lifestyles of the Libyan people.
Describing the diets of the Bedouin Arabs in Libya during his travels through North Africa from 1818-20, Capt. Lyon* observes that:
“When the date season commences, many, families come and pitch their tents in the Meshea of Tripoli, in order to purchase dates for their future subsistence; these they deprive of the stones, and when kneaded together, keep them in skins, so as to preserve them from insects or wet: these form their chief support, assisted by the milk of their sheep and camels.”
Al-Jufra is the largest area that produces dates in Libya. Its unique climate and soil conditions mean that dates are easily cultivated without the need for chemical pesticides or fertilizers, yielding organic and nutritious fruit. According to the Istituto Agronomico per l’Oltremare IAO (Italian Overseas Agronomic Institute) Libyan dates fall into three groups:
The fleshy-fruited coastal varieties, which can be eaten fresh or refrigerated for months, or stored with seeds removed and compacted into small containers, which can then be made into a paste ajwa and used in several sweet dishes (Bronzi, Taluni, Baudi); the semi-soft varieties from the central zone, mostly consumed fresh (Bestian, Kathari, Abel, Tagiat, Saiedi); and those from the southern oases, less succulent and fleshy (Amjog, Emeli, Awarig, Tascube, Intalia, Tamjog). These latter varieties are suited for drying and can be stored for up to 10 years.
The semi-soft, dry Abel dates are the best for making date syrup and give a distinctive deep-reddish mahogany color, whereas other varieties yield a more brownish syrup. They are oval shaped and tend to have lighter colored tough patches usually around the caps. They have dry flesh and thick skin making it difficult to peel but easy to remove the pits as they do not stick to the flesh. They are very sweet and store indefinitely in a cool dry place and can be eaten as they are.
Abel dates have a total sugar content of 71.3% (mainly as glucose and fructose) so no other sugars (especially refined white) need to or should be added to the syrup making process. Date syrup can be used as a natural sweetener as you would honey or molasses. Traditionally eaten with aseeda, it is also often spread on or dipped with bread, or used to sweeten warm milk.
Ruub Date Syrup Recipe
Time: Preparation 20min, Cooking 2 1/2 to 3 hrs
Makes 1 cup
1/2kg Abel dates (or any other dry dates available)
Cheesecloth, sieve, wooden spoon, medium pot, and saucepan
Wash and rinse dates under cold running water until completely clean. Pat dry.
Split open using fingers (this is easy with Abels as they are dry and tend not to stick to the seed) or a paring knife and remove caps and seeds. Discard any infested dates.
Put the date flesh in a medium pot and cover with two cups of water on a medium-high flame. Bring to a boil for 10 minutes then reduce heat and leave to simmer for half an hour.
Pour the contents of the pot into a sieve lined with a cheesecloth (or dishtowel) and placed over a saucepan. Leave to drain and cool slightly.
Carefully squeeze all the liquid out taking care as the mixture may still be hot.
Return pulp to the pan and add two more cups of water. Repeat process as above.
Put the saucepan containing the date water on a medium low flame. The sieved liquid may appear to be muddy or cloudy at first, similar to coffee with milk, but will quickly change into a rich and shiny reddish-brown as it cooks. During this process the date sugars are being inverted to produce a thick syrup. This process is similar to making a sugar syrup (atar) or caramel.
To test viscosity, drop some syrup on flour. It should keep its concave shape and not flatten or be absorbed by the flour.
* NARRATIVE OF TRAVELS IN NORTHERN AFRICA IN THE YEARS 1818-19 AND 1820: Captain George Francis Lyon (1795–1832) was an Arctic and African explorer and British Naval Officer. He is known for his descriptive journals and his genuine interest in the indigenous people of the countries he visited. In 1818 he was sent on an expedition to locate Timbuktu and started his journey from Tripoli reaching as far as Murzuk, only to return to Tripoli having failed at his mission. His bad luck has left us with an invaluable resource on the customs and food fo the Libyan people.