Just as Brazil’s mysterious acai berries once were to Western health fanatics (remember when they could cure cancer?), so are jujubes to China. Known as red dates, or hongzao (红枣) in Chinese, the native southeast asian fruit has long been heralded as a superfood, making appearances on TCM prescription pads and in locals’ kitchens, where they’re still used to decorate buns, porridge, soup or desert as a kind of spice. You can get them fresh during the autumn, when they’re crisp and green as apples, or dried, when the fruit take on a deep red color and sweet, chewy texture. So how did red dates get their reputation as China’s favorite cure-all fruit?
Nutritional and Health Benefits
Though red dates are actually classified as drupes (a category of pitted fruit that also includes mangoes, olives and coffee), in Chinese they’ve been labeled as “the king of nuts” (百果之王 bǎi guǒ zhī wáng) for their rich nutritional value. Seventy to 80 times higher in Vitamin C than grapes and apples, red dates also abound with Vitamin A, Vitamin B1, Vitamin B2, protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron and magnesium. This vitamin-packed punch makes red dates great for people who are recovering from serious diseases. Making it even better for the sickly, red dates are said to stimulate the production of white blood cells, which improves immunity, and decrease the levels of cholesterol in your bloodstream, which helps protect the liver. Like acai berries and other antioxidant foods, they’re even believed to suppress cancer cells. Red dates can also guard against more common ailments. Because of their high levels of Vitamin C, dates convert excessive cholesterol into bile acid, which helps prevent gallstones. Meanwhile, phosphorus and iron play an important role in preventing osteoporosis and anemia, both common in women.
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Chinese herbal medicine believes that red dates help build up yangqi (阳气), or the warm half of the yin-yang balance, in the body, and have the power to strengthen the spleen and stomach, replenish qi, nourish and produce blood and tranquilize the mind. The fruit are also frequently included as an ingredient in more toxic herbal medicines because of their ability to moderate side effects, especially irritation of the stomach. The last benefit can account for why red dates remain frequently prescribed by TCM doctors.
Something for the Ladies
Though they’re eaten by everyone, red dates are especially popular with women for their alleged beauty and health effects. Because they’re renowned for enriching and replenishing blood, many women eat red dates during their special time of the month. But that’s not the only draw for ladies. Red dates are frequently touted in ads and on TV programs as an herbal elixir of life, guaranteed to keep you looking young as the smooth-faced 70-year-old women singing its praises. In the supermarket, packages of dates are often stamped with the bold sentence, “Three red dates a day keep you young for ever” (一天吃三枣，青春永不老 Yītiān chī sān zǎo, qīngchūn yǒng bùlǎo).
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History in China
Date kernel fossils discovered by Chinese archeologists prove that red dates have been in China for more than 8000 years, and have been used medicinally for more than 3000 years. In Xizhou Dynasty (1046 BC-771 BC), Chinese people began to use red dates to brew liquor, known as hongzaojiu (红枣酒), which would be served on special occasions and to distinguished guests. According to “Classic of Poetry” (诗经), a famous collection of poems dating from around the eighth century BC, red dates were harvested in the eighth month of Chinese lunar calendar (around the autumn). Liji (礼记), or the “Book of Rites,” a historical record written during the Zhou Dynasty (1050 BC-256 BC) said red dates were used to make dishes. Many generations of Chinese herbal medicine works listed red dates and spelled out its healthcare effects.
When and How to Eat
While it’s healthy to indulge in a few red dates every day, like all dried fruits, they should be eaten in moderation to avoid bloating. Three to five are usually enough for one day. Diabetics, however, and people with digestive problems should avoid red dates. Chinese herbal medicine says that red dates are not suitable for people with too much internal humidity. Below are some common red date dishes, which you should be able to pick up at most non-regional or zhou (粥):
Red dates, white fungus and lotus seed soup (红枣银耳莲子羹 hóng zǎo yín’ěr iánzǐ gēng)
Longan, red dates and glutinous rice porridge (桂圆红枣糯米粥 guìyuán hóng zǎo nuòmǐ zhōu)
Osmanthus and red dates cake (桂花红枣糕 guìhuā hóng zǎo gāo)
Red date, Chinese yam and pork rib soup (红枣山药排骨汤 hóng zǎo shānyào páigǔ tāng)
Black rice, red date and soy bean paste (黑米红枣豆沙 Hēi mǐ hóng zǎo dòushā)