Dates are an incredibly versatile foodstuff. They can be picked and eaten ripe, dried like a raisin, baked into any number of pies or pastries, or turned into silan – the sticky syrup that is taking the global market by storm. What was once a fairly obscure homemade treat in Israeli homes has become a major export you can expect to hear more of!
Dates are one of mankind’s oldest and most familiar foodstuffs. Grown by humans for more than five thousand years, this delicious treat has been known as the "bread of the desert” and the "cake of the poor” beloved for both its sweet taste and widespread availability thanks to its intrinsic ruggedness. It’s a beautiful, tasty fruit that grows in some of the harshest, hottest climates in the world - it makes sense that it has been considered a blessing by different cultures for centuries!
As you might expect, the date occupies a special place in Israeli culture. As one of the seven fruit species prevalent in the nation during biblical times (along with olives, grapes, figs, pomegranates, barley, and wheat) it is strongly associated with biblical history. The dates grown in Israel today are much the same as the dates Jesus and his disciples would have eaten (in fact, dried dates were a very popular travel food in ancient times, perfect for anyone on a long trip to spread the gospel). The date has been used as a symbol of hospitality in Israel since ancient times, a welcoming treat to share with guests and visitors. Even today, the humble date graces the 10-shekel coin, that’s how important the crop is to Israeli culture. And while popular as a snack, it’s the syrupy silan that has really captured the interest of Israeli chefs and international attention!
Silan is a labour of love. Made by slow boiling specific varieties of dates picked just a tiny bit before they are fully ripe for just the right flavor and painstakingly wringing the juices from them. That juice is further reduced from there until it becomes a sticky, thick syrup. This is not something you just whip up in an afternoon.
There is an art to making silan at home. It requires patience, care, and practice. Just like the perfect bowl of pho, or a meticulously baked brioche, home-made silan is an all-day event. One that every Israeli swears their grandma does the best!
But production advancements in the 1980s found ways to expand the process and reliably hit the complex flavour notes that make silan such a favourite. These advancements allowed silan to hit grocery store shelves as a staple in Israeli homes, a lovely alternative to honey, molasses, or even caramel. Today, silan is used in a variety of dishes, both elaborate and simple. From marinades and roasts, to simply smeared over some bread with a little tahini for the Israeli equivalent of a PB&J sandwich!
What has really brought silan to the world stage though is an increasing awareness of what we eat. As many health-conscious foodies seek alternatives to refined white sugar, silan offers a tempting alternative. With a sweet but not sickening flavour profile that features complex notes of coffee and bitter caramel to balance it out, it’s a welcome substitution for many recipes and beverages that typically rely on sugar. It is also a great source of antioxidants and vitamins A and B, making it healthier as well.
Vegans are also getting into the act. Silan mixed with a bit of water can be a surprising substitute for eggs that few would expect, making it perfect for those who want to avoid the use of any animal products in their baking. It’s also becoming something of a secret weapon for gourmet chefs and restaurateurs who are using silan’s more complex flavour profile to give their dishes a little extra kick!
While we’re sure many Israeli homes still insist the best silan is their granny’s, the rest of us can now enjoy this delicious treat worldwide!