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Inside a date market in Saudi Arabia, one of the world's top producers


Now dates - not the going-out kind, but, you know, the edible fruit kind, now in season. There are few places in the world where dates are more cherished and come in more varieties than in Saudi Arabia, one of the world's top producers. NPR's Fatma Tanis went to a date market and festival in the heart of Saudi Arabia's date country.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Speaking Arabic).

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: It's 5 a.m. in the morning, and it's already crowded at the date festival in Buraydah, a city in northwest Saudi Arabia that's famous for the fruit. Hundreds of white pickup trucks packed to the brim with boxes of dates are lined up row after row. Men are standing on the roofs of trucks shouting out numbers as they try to sell dates by the tens of kilos.

KHALED ALSALAMEH: (Speaking Arabic).

TANIS: I meet Khaled Alsalameh, who's been in the business for 20 years. He tells me he's selling 10 different kinds of dates this year to Saudi customers and foreigners. Saudi dates are known for their quality and variety, attracting producers from around the world who come here to study the palm trees and learn how to grow sweet, meaty dates.

ALSALAMEH: (Through interpreter) The question I get asked most by Americans and Europeans is how I got my dates to be round and big. So I tell them the secret. You have to trim the palms to allow room for the fruit to breathe. The more space a date has, the more it can grow.

TANIS: They're also interested in the different kinds, says Salameh.

ALSALAMEH: (Through interpreter) These dates might all look the same shape, even color, but they taste completely different.

TANIS: Date connoisseurs can tell the difference. There is Sukkari, the most popular one. Sweet like its name in Arabic, it's golden brown with caramel notes and a melt-in-the-mouth texture. Then Ajwa - small and dark in color - it's chewy with notes of cinnamon and cloves. Another is Khalas, chestnut brown with nutty tones. And the list goes on. Nearly all of the people organizing the event or selling dates are men. This is a deeply conservative part of Saudi Arabia that hasn't seen women taking to the workforce like in the big cities. But there are a few women, like Mishayer Alrumaih, who came with a friend to stock up.

MISHAYER ALRUMAIH: (Through interpreter) We're looking for the big, round Sukkari dates. You have to come early to get those.

TANIS: She wants to buy tens of kilos to put in the freezer at her house to keep fresh and eat throughout the year. She's also looking for the semi-ripe rutab dates, available just a few weeks each season. It's when half of the fruit is golden yellow, juicy and crunchy, and the other half is caramel brown and dissolves on the tongue.

ALRUMAIH: (Through interpreter) Everyone should get to try it once in their life. It's amazing - indescribable. You have to taste it.

TANIS: Dates are a cornerstone of Saudi hospitality, Alrumaih says. Considered one of the best gifts one can give, every gathering, party or dinner in Saudi Arabia must begin with a service of dates and Arabic coffee. They're a staple for breaking the fast during Ramadan, too. There are also dates that are covered in chocolate, stuffed with dried fruits or nuts, date ice cream, milkshakes, pastries. you can find them in savory dishes, even skin care products made from date seed oil.

ALSALAMEH: (Speaking Arabic).

TANIS: But most Saudis, like Alsalameh and Alrumaih, agree. The best way to eat a date is by itself. That makes sense at a nearby farm, where lines of thousands of date palms are cared for six years before they start producing fruit. The owner, Abdullah Alqateeb, points at his more than 10,000 trees with pride.

ABDULLAH ALQATEEB: (Speaking Arabic).

TANIS: There's no point in having Snickers or other chocolates when you can have dates, he jokes. He says, they're packed with vitamins, too.

ALQATEEB: (Speaking Arabic).

TANIS: He reaches up to a tree to pluck one and marvels. Dates are a blessing, he says. We're lucky to have them.

Fatma Tanis, NPR News, Buraydah, Saudi Arabia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.