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The flavor of the season-Chinese dates
(China Daily)
Updated: 2008-10-08 09:46

The flavor of the season-Chinese dates

Early October is the time of year when mountains of mottled green and brown fresh jujubes (or Chinese dates, zao) can be found piled up in the green grocers. These crisp fruits are similar to apples in flavor with a slightly drier texture. I find I can sit munching on them for hours. As the month progresses, they lose their lime green color and become progressively mahogany brown.

The fully mature fruit is plump and reddish brown in color. As time passes they lose their moisture and become shriveled, giving their flesh a somewhat spongy texture. At this point they are usually referred to as hong zao (red dates) and are commonly used as flavorings in tea, hot pot stock or as ingredients in sweet congee.

Hole-in-the-wall bakers often sell film-wrapped slices of sticky rice cake made with jujube at breakfast and early lunch, and if you're lucky you may find an early morning street vendor serving it up hot. Dried jujube are widely available in Chinese supermarkets, often sold loose alongside various other tea ingredients such as rock sugar, dried lemon slices and flowers.

Sometimes the fresh fruit is smoked before it is dried to produce black jujube (hei zao) which intensifies their flavor and adds an interesting smoky note to the sweetness.

Alternative preparations of the dried fruit include candying with sugar or honey - delicious but you would certainly restrict your intake of these to a few at a time as they pack quite a sugar punch.

Jujubes have been cultivated in China for more than 4,000 years with around 40 different cultivars. Unsurprisingly they are a frequent feature of traditional Chinese medicine, used in treatments for sore throats (possibly due to their mucilaginous nature), stress, and constipation (perhaps due to the laxative effect of the fiber) amongst other things.

Jujube seeds (zao ren) - are traditionally used as a reasonably effective indigenous treatment for insomnia, and scientific studies show they contain a chemical called spinosin that is known to have a sedative effect.

The cultivation of jujubes is common throughout Asia and indeed in many other parts of the world.

In India, they are widely consumed in their raw form. In some African countries they are dried and fermented and then used to make a gingerbread style cake. In Venezuela, a liqueur called Crema de ponsigue is made from the fruits. In the Himalayas, it is believed the jujube's sweet aroma is an aphrodisiac and so young men wear stems of jujube flowers in their hats.

From a nutritional standpoint, fresh jujube have an extremely high vitamin C content with a meager 50g portion (around eight fruits) providing an adult's daily recommended intake. Calorie-wise they sit just slightly above apples by weight, with that same 50g portions providing 40kcal.

I'm a big fan of jujubes in my own cooking. They are a great addition to British flapjacks.

Take 1 cup of pitted, dried jujube, chop them up, and then soak for 30 minutes in hot water. Meanwhile, take 4 cups of oats, and half a cup of chopped walnuts and mix together with 1-2 teaspoons of cinnamon and a pinch of ginger powder. Drain the jujubes and add to the mixture. Melt half a cup of butter and add this with 1/3 cup of honey to the oat mix, coating it thoroughly. Press it into a greased baking tin and bake in the oven for 40 minutes at 150 C.

I also love to add them to stews and casseroles, as they add a really rich velvety texture and slightly sweet note to the cooking juice. They work particularly well in Moroccan-style lamb tagines in place of (or in addition to) dried apricots.

This nutrition-related column is written by Nina Lenton, a qualified dietitian living and working in Beijing. Contact her at nina_lenton@hotmail.com.

(China Daily 10/08/2008 page19)