Sunshine all the time,
Makes a desert. ( Arab Proverb).
Driving past the sand dunes from Abu Dhabi to Al Ain city, last month when temperature soared above 40 degrees, was certainly not the best time. With a visit to the date farms and Al Ain market on the list… we had to meet the harsh weather, just like the Bedouins!
The drive took less than two hours, past the sand dunes in differing hues. Near the Al Nahyan Jahili museum, is the lush green curated (UNESCO site) palm plantation. With over 1000 palms and 50 varieties grown here, it was a blessing to stand under the shade of the fronds. Braving the sun, we explored the different plantations on either side of the central passageway. The traditional falaj irrigation system provides the required amount of water released as needed.
What a treat and unique experience it was as we plucked fresh crunchy, semi-ripe dates! Hanging in clusters of 10-20 fruit, the sugary fruit quickly saturated us. There were plenty fallen on the soft sandy soil. Crunch, crunch, crunch……and finally a burp!
The local grocer market at nearby Mina centre, is just a drive round the corner. The low-rise building was almost hidden from view. Don’t expect an open air souk, with goats or camel standing there. For that, visit the Camel Souk.
The airy covered and ventilated market area is quite large with shops on either side and a large central corridor for easy flow of customers and goods. The vendors are locals, immigrants settled here from coastal India, Philippine, neighbouring Oman and Sudan, but no Emirati shopkeepers. A friendly Emirati, clad in his traditional long white Kandoura, helped me choose the most succulent dates and nudged me into buying 5 kilo! ‘They are good, good…season fresh now’ he said.
There were plenty of stalls selling dry fish and sea food like cuttlefish, fish ball cakes, dry sea weed, fish crackers… produce brought in from coastal Oman and Kerala in India. These are a sought after delicacy among the Emirati population, who otherwise prefer camel meat and poultry.
Delicate woven straw baskets, aluminium trays filled with season’s dry dates like Barhi, Niloufer and local Al Ain specialties were aplenty. Most vendors were Keralites who had settled here many years ago, working on farms owned by locals.
I struck a good bargain, as a fellow Indian and offered AED 13 Dirham per kilo. These dates he explained ‘were season’s fresh, not dipped in any sugar syrup and unprocessed. And no packaging too’. He offered me 3-4 different varieties of dates to taste. There… I was burping again!
It was time to refresh with some cool Labaan, a popular yoghurt drink with enough salts and dairy to refresh you on a hot day. Small air-conditioned shops nearby catered to needs of the shopkeepers and buyers. Fresh vegetables like lettuce, mint, coriander, green leafy vegetables and bananas, melons and papaya – mostly grown in nearby greenhouse farms made their way to this market. The refrigerator kiosk was filled with dairy products.
Carrying plastic bags filled with fresh dates for friends and family, it was time to bid goodbye to the city market. We left richer – with bag loads of fruit and a deeper knowledge of the summer conditions that ripen the fruit. Locals briefed us about the nutritional content and importance of providing sustenance to those tired, weary desert Bedouins. No wonder then Mother Maryam was advised to ”shake that palm towards you, and the dates will fall and feed you” as mentioned in the Holy book.
Have you been to a date plantation ? Share your experience.