• Hila

Candy does grow on trees

In the late 18th century, it was mandatory for Jews in Europe to adopt fixed family names. My ancestors, expressing their affinity to the holy land, chose the name of a tree that grows there: Teitelbaum, which means date palm tree in German.

When my grandfather immigrated to Israel in 1936, his East European foreign name was hebritzed to Tamari- a variation of the word Tamar, Hebrew for date- the fruit of the palm tree. His first son (my father) was born two years later in Tel Aviv, where towering unbranched trunks crowned with spreading leaves resembling lollipops were part of the surrounding landscape.

Dates have been cultivated in the Middle East since ancient times. They are listed in the bible as one of the seven species- the special products of the Land of Israel, and when the promised land of Israel is described as “a land flowing with milk and honey..." (Exodus 3:8), it is generally believed that it is referring to date honey rather than bee honey. According to one interpretation, manna, the edible substance which “fell from the sky” (Exodus 16) and energized the Israelites during their 40 years of traveling in the desert was palm tree nectar dripping from the clusters of fruit hanging underneath the tree's fronds.

There are hundreds of types of dates. Some are soft and not as sweet and tender as the semi-dry and dry variants, which are harvested fully ripe when the sun has already dried them on the tree. With a chewy fudgy interior, these dates resemble candy. They naturally grow in a snack-size, can be eaten out-of-hand, and are packed with sugar.

But, unlike heavily processed candy that consists of refined sugar, artificial bright colors, and is wrapped in cellophane paper, candy-like dates grow on trees; Their thin wrap (their skin) is edible, and despite being very sweet, they are actually very nutritious. Dates are rich in dietary fibers, proteins, minerals, and B vitamins . They are also a good source of calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, and antioxidants.

The fruit that had been a staple in the Middle Eastern cuisines for thousands of years has recently found its way into the US mainstream as an ingredient in energy bars and nutritious desserts. In Sweet Tahini, we embrace dates in every possible way, and along with using it as base ingredient for our bite-size snacks, we also add silan (date syrup produced by heating dates in water to soften, then blended and strained to remove pits and cooked again until all the water has been evaporated) to balance the flavors in our tahini bread, and our date flavored sesame butter consists of tahini blended with this dark naturally sweet syrup and a note of cinnamon. In our cooking classes, we demonstrate how to use silan in meat dishes and desserts.

My grandfather passed away in 2000, shortly after the new millennium began. The palm tree we planted as kids in front of his house grew tall and to this day still stands. His eldest son, my father, passed away two years later and we planted a dwarf palm tree next to his gravestone. My brothers’ families carry the name Tamari to the next generation, and I kept this name in the family by naming my youngest daughter Tamar.

In the photo: 3nd and 4rd generation of the Tamari family visit a palm tree orchard in Ein Yahav, Israel, during harvest time.