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Dried fruit is fruit that has had the bulk of its original water content removed, either naturally, by sun drying, or artificially, by using specialized dryers or dehydrators. Dried fruit has a long history of use in Mesopotamia, reaching back to the fourth millennium BC, and is praised for its sweet flavor, nutritional content, and extended shelf life.
Consumption of dried fruits has become more widespread in recent years. Raisins are the most popular dried fruit, followed by dates, prunes, figs, apricots, peaches, apples, and pears. Fruits that have been dried in the sun or in heated wind tunnel dryers are referred to as “conventional” or “traditional” dried fruits. Prior to drying, many fruits like cranberries, blueberries, cherries, strawberries, and mango are infused with a sweetness (such as sucrose syrup). Some dried fruit, such as papaya, kiwifruit, and pineapple, are really candied fruit.
The nutritional content of dried fruits is similar to that of fresh fruits. The nutritious content of different dried fruits is determined by their fresh counterpart and the manner of processing.
For millennia, traditional dried fruits including raisins, figs, dates, apricots, and apples have been a mainstay of Mediterranean cuisine. This is owing in part to its early cultivation in the Fertile Crescent, which includes areas of modern-day Iran, Iraq, Turkey’s southwest, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, and northern Egypt. The first means of food preservation was drying or dehydration: grapes, dates, and figs that fell from the tree or vine were dried in the hot sun. These fallen fruits took on an edible shape, and early hunter-gatherers appreciated them for their stability as well as concentrated sweetness.
Dried fruits are mentioned for the first time on Mesopotamian tablets dating from around 1500 BC, which include the world’s oldest known written recipes. These cuneiform-inscribed clay slabs, written in Akkadian, Babylonia’s daily language, describe meals centered on grains (barley, millet, wheat), vegetables, and fruits such as dates, figs, apples, pomegranates, and grapes. Dates, date juice drained into syrup, and raisins were employed as sweeteners by these early civilizations. They used dried fruits in their breads, which ranged from plain barley bread for the labourers to very ornate spiced cakes with honey for the palaces and temples.
One of the first cultivated trees was the date palm. It was cultivated around 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia. Dates were the cheapest of basic meals because they grew abundantly in the Fertile Crescent and were so plentiful (an average date palm yields 50 kg (100 lbs) of fruit per year for 60 years or more). They were carefully documented in Assyrian and Babylonian monuments and temples because they were so precious. Mesopotamian peasants dried them and ate them as sweets. They added flavor to meat dishes and grain pies, whether fresh, soft-dried, or hard-dried. They were prized by travelers for their vigor and were suggested as anti-fatigue stimulants.
Figs were highly appreciated in early Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Egypt, where they were presumably used more frequently than or on par with dates. Many examples have been discovered in Egyptian tombs as funeral gifts, in addition to appearing in wall paintings. Figs grew abundantly throughout Greece and Crete, and they were a mainstay of both the affluent and the poor, particularly in dried form.
In the 4th century BC, grape growing began in Armenia and the eastern Mediterranean region. Grapes were dried in the harsh desert heat to make raisins. Viticulture and the production of raisins grew fast over northern Africa, including Morocco and Tunisia. Because of the ideal arid climate for sun drying, the Phoenicians and Egyptians pioneered the manufacture of raisins. They stored them in jars and distributed them by the hundreds to other temples. They also used them in breads and pastries, some of which were prepared with honey and others with milk and eggs.
These fruits traveled from the Middle East to Greece and then to Italy, where they became a staple of the cuisine. Raisins were consumed in large amounts by ancient Romans at all levels of society, and they were a staple of their everyday meals, along with olives and fresh fruits. Breakfast consisted mostly of raisined breads, which were eaten with cereals, legumes, and cultured milks. Raisins were so highly prized that they were used as both a reward for excellent athletes and a premium barter currency.