A new trend in healthy whole-foods eating is using dates in place of highly processed white sugar.
Dates are naturally sticky and sweet, making a passable substitute for caramel in vegan cooking. They contain antioxidants, vitamins A and B, and are considered good for cardiovascular health.
Israel is the world’s largest exporter of Medjoul dates, the likes of which can sell for €1 a pop in Europe due to their extra-large size, prized soft texture and intense flavor.
Row upon row of meticulously planted date plantations thrive in some of Israel’s hottest climate zones — the Arava and Jordan valleys on the eastern border. Medjoul is the most popular of nine varieties; others include Barhi and Deglet Nour.
Historically a sign of hospitality, and a portable and reliable energy source on long journeys, dates were so ingrained in the culture here that ancient Israelite and Roman coins show date palms as a symbol of the land. The modern 10-shekel coin has preserved that image.
Dates are one of the seven species native to the land during biblical times along with wheat, barley, grapes, olives, figs and pomegranates.
The “honey” in “the land of milk and honey,” is thought to refer not to bees’ honey but rather silan, the Hebrew word for the popular dark syrup derived from the fruit.
However, the prized Medjoul variety — a prime choice for making silan –made its way to Israel only in the 1970s, from saplings brought in from California, half a world away.
Silan is made from pitted dates that are covered in water and slowly boiled down, blended and wrung of their juices. The liquid is then reduced until it is rich and syrupy, capturing different underlying notes of flavor that balance out its sweetness along the journey.
In its final form, the flavor of silan becomes tantalizingly more complex than that of a sickly-sweet dried date. Bitter caramel and coffee notes are coaxed out, making silan a perfect substitute in recipes that call for molasses — a specialty product in Israel that sells many times the price of local date “honey.”
Israeli ‘peanut butter and jelly’
Believed by historians to be the original Passover charoset, silan is a staple of Iraqi, Persian and other Middle East cuisines.
Until the 1980s, when commercial production from companies like Tamar Kinneret came into play, silan was made at home by grandmothers with the time and patience for such a painstaking process.
With heritage foods having made a comeback in Israel, silan has been thrust to the forefront with the best of them and can be found in every Israeli kitchen. Every Israeli supermarket has several different brands and even flavor-infused options on the shelves.
How are Israelis using the syrup? In the local cuisine, you’re most likely to bump into silan in a salad dressing, shake or marinade for chicken. But there are endless possibilities.
Silan and tahini on bread is the Israeli version of peanut butter and jelly, says Michael Solomonov in his 2016 James Beard award-winning cookbook, Zahav.
You wouldn’t believe how delicious gingerbread cookies are when made with silan. It also comes in handy for making your own brown sugar.
Mixed with a little water, silan makes a good vegan egg substitute in baking, a technique favored by Israeli celebrity pastry chef Carine Goren. She brushes silan on sandwich rolls before sending them off to the oven in her most recent Hebrew baking book.
Celebrity chef and restaurateur Meir Adoni named the Barcelona tapas bar in his global restaurant empire after the sweet syrup. California based Dvash Organics is among a growing number of places that tout silan as a natural sugar substitute.
As Israeli food reaches its peak of popularity abroad, you can now find date honey in stores across the globe right next to the tahini, zhug, amba sauce, and shakshuka starter kits, where it rightfully belongs.
Here are a couple of recipes to get you started.
Homemade Brown Silan Sugar
Usually made in this form by mixing molasses and white sugar, silan makes a brown sugar that lends a special deep caramel flavor to baked goods. Try it as a fun project, or for when you run out of the pantry staple at home.
1 kilo white sugar
¼ cup silan
Mix with a fork until evenly incorporated and tan in color.
Crunchy Silan Pecan Granola
Dark in color and rich in flavor, this crunchy granola picks up the best of silan’s caramel notes in a satisfying cereal substitute or yogurt topping.
5 cups (500 grams) rolled oats
3 cups (240 grams) quick oats
½ cup sliced almonds
1 cup pecan pieces
1 cup desiccated coconut
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 Heaping tablespoon cinnamon
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 cup silan
2/3 cup safflower or olive oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons water
1. Combine all ingredients in a large bowl until evenly mixed.
2. Spread in one even layer on a baking sheet and cook at 175C (350F) for 20 minutes.
3. Remove from oven, stir, and bake for another 7-10 minutes.
4. Let cool on the tray, then break up by hand and store in a sealed container for up to a month. Once cooled, return any bits that remain slightly soft to the oven for an additional 7-10 minutes to crisp up.