Good grief, where have I been? This post is late late late, but here’s the problem with food blogging. By the time you post about a food in season—especially when you don’t live in California—that season is nearly over. So really, most posts about certain foods should be stored away for next year. I’m doing you a service by posting this late. Now you only have to wait nine months instead of ten for Korean dates to come into season again. Assuming you can find them at all.
Korean dates are usually sold dried. Unlike sticky brown dates, dried Korean dates are light and papery in the hand, husk-like. They are only barely sweet. You find them worked into duk treats and pots of hot chicken juk for their medicinal value and pretty red color. The traditional Korean p’yebaek ceremony, where the bride is officially “introduced” to the groom’s family, features a moment when the bride and groom bite out of the same date. Supposedly, the one who gets the seed wears the pants in the family. My brother and his wife chose to hold a p’yebaek ceremony to combine western and Korean cultures. She got the seed.
Score one for the chicks! High five, ladies! (If he’d gotten the seed I’d be gloating at the new in-laws, so either way, I win. Ha!) Ahem.
Fresh, the firm dates range from pale green to dark brown when fully ripe. My mother planted a Korean date tree and harvested the first dates two summers ago. She gave me one from the small and precious harvest. I held it reverently. I had never seen a fresh date before, much less a Korean one. It tasted…like a foam packing peanut. And not biodegradable ones either, but peanuts your great great aunt puts in the box to keep your porcelain hippopotamus safe during shipping (happy 17th birthday!). These are the kind of packing peanuts that last 5,000 years and may be used by future archaeologists to tell them what we were (hippo god worshipers).
I said, and I quote, “Yuck.”
I’m not the only one. My aunt doesn’t like them, and neither do that many Koreans. Even the squirrels wouldn’t touch them, and those bastards will eat anything, including 99.5% of our chestnut harvest. None of this fazed my mom. “More for me,” she said, crunching on date after date. “More for me.”
The tree produced even more dates this summer, so I let them ripen on the counter a bit and gave them another shot. Yuck. My mother insisted they were better fresh from the tree. So I tried that.
My heart holds onto some foods within an extremely narrow range. Raw apples, for instance. I don’t hate apples, but I never seek out apples unless I know that it has been picked in the last 24 hours. Golden Delicious, one of the most maligned, mealy, pathetic apples, is actually one of the greatest when it’s still alive, the powdery sap squirting onto your lips when you bite into one. I lived for falls just to go to the orchard with my family and pick a pile. There is simply nothing like a fresh apple. Grocery store apples and even most farmer’s market apples break my heart again and again. So when people ask, I just say I don’t like apples. It takes too much time and sounds too snotty to say I only like apples I picked myself. Stick it in a pie if you want me to eat it.
I’m not that picky about all foods. While I love garden-fresh tomatoes from my own yard, I don’t mind winter tomatoes in a sandwich because it has more flavor than lettuce and adds vitamins. Who cares if it’s bland? I wouldn’t make a BLT with one, but hey, it’s a veggie. Processed American cheese instead of cheddar? I’ll survive. Pepperidge Farm bagels instead of one from the corner in NYC? Life could be worse.
But on some foods, like apples, I can’t compromise. At the risk of sounding snotty, here’s a new one: I only like Korean dates that were plucked from the tree less than 12 hours ago. Any longer than that, and the essence is gone. What is that essence? The fragrance of violets, a fleeting tartness, a sweetness like the thin nectar I used to suck from wild field clover.
It’s a flavor beautiful for its subtlety and special for its brief season. If you have a chance to try one fresh from the tree, please don’t pass it up. You may not like it, but that’s okay, because that just means more for the rest of us. More for me.