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Aida Ahmad

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Penang, Malaysia

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Aida Ahmad works as a photojournalist at the largest circulation English news publication in the capital of Kuala Lumpur and is the 2012 Alfred Friendly Press Partners and Daniel Pearl Foundation Fellow. She spent five months working at the Los Angeles Times, where she contributed stories for the city, business and entertainment desks. When she is not painstakingly churning out words, she enjoys traveling, photography and creating food art that helps her to gain more followers on Instagram.

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Malaysia Buys Into New York Pizza, One Slice At A Time Image

The shelf life of eateries in the posh Kuala Lumpur suburb of Bangsar, Malaysia, can be volatile. I have seen restaurants come and go all in the span of less than a year.

A few months ago, when I came across another new eatery in the area, I hardly gave it a thought. Soon after, though, a friend asked if I had been to this new place called Mikey’s Original New York Pizza. She assured me the place was worth checking out, and on her recommendation I did.

The pizzeria is the work of Michael Helfman, born and bred on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, who has brought New York-style, sliced pizza to Malaysia. Until now, we have never had a restaurant that sells pizza by the slice, and many Malaysians are not used to the slice concept, let alone referring to a whole pizza as a “pie.”

Pizza shop is a slice of New York

“When you walk into Mikey’s, you are walking into New York,” said Helfman, who decided to adorn the interior’s brick-red walls with pictures of New York City, from the famous skyscrapers to the Wall Street bull to the New York Mets’ 1986 championship poster. And what New York pizza place would be complete without photos of the cast of “The Godfather” and “The Sopranos”?

“That is the environment I want to create. I miss New York, but now I love Malaysia, too,” said Helfman, who is looking forward to marrying his Malaysian fiancée, Gabrielle, in September.

About five years ago, Helfman arrived in Malaysia for work as a media consultant. When his contract was up, he stayed behind because he didn’t want to move. “Malaysia is going to be a permanent part of my life, so I figured I would bring a part of my life from the U.S. to Malaysia,” he said.

Having been to New York City myself not too long ago, I decided to partake in the nostalgia of the Big Apple with Helfman. He has fond memories of eating his first pizza from a pizzeria called AJ’s in Queens. “I don’t know if it is still there or not, but pizza was always a big part of New York life. I mean, everywhere you go there is a pizzeria.”

Most of the framed pictures on the walls were taken by Helfman and his fiancée. “If I see something that’s cool, I take a picture. It’s the age of smartphones, where you always have a camera in your pocket. You can capture those small moments that otherwise you won’t remember. All of a sudden, I have 200 pictures of New York in my phone.”

Helfman also has an important sidekick at Mikey’s, chef Andrew Bellucci, the man who helped reopen the famous Lombardi’s Pizza, which was the first licensed pizzeria in the United States.

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Michael Helfman, owner of Mikey's Original New York Pizza in Malaysia, stands on front of wall of photos in the pizzeria. Credit: Aida Ahmad

Bellucci arrived in Malaysia in February, and describes the country in two words: “It’s hot!” That also goes for the heat in the kitchen at Mikey’s, where it’s Bellucci’s job to make sure the pizzas are flying out of the custom-fit oven, which reaches temperatures up to 752 degrees F (400 degrees Celsius). That’s the ideal temperature to make good pizzas, Bellucci said.

“When you have a good crust, sauce and cheese, it’s good. The dough is key … a soggy crust is not good. The bottom should be just a little charred. If you go to most of the pizzerias in New York, the gas ovens go up to only 550 degrees Fahrenheit, and that is not hot enough. Instead of eight minutes, it would take 13 or 14 minutes to cook, and the pie would be dry,” Bellucci said.

At Mikey’s, the menu includes Classic New York Pizza, the Meatball Pizza (also known as Mikey’s Favorite), the Tony Soprano and Pizza Bianco (Chef’s Favorite). A slice of the Classic is a minimalist’s favorite, consisting of cheese, sauce and dough. The Meatball Pizza is topped with roasted peppers, roasted garlic, cheese, sauce, a healthy sprinkling of Grana Padano cheese (all the pizzas here have this) and, of course, meatballs.  The Tony Soprano is a meat-lover’s favorite, with pepperoni, steak, meatballs, roasted peppers, garlic, mozzarella and sauce, while Pizza Bianco is a four-cheese pizza with goat, ricotta, mozzarella and cheddar cheeses.

These were even better than the pizzas I had eaten in New York, I must say.

“I really missed slices of New York-style pizza, so we thought, ‘Why not just bring the concept here?,’ ” Helfman said. “You can get a little bit of Mike at Mikey’s — my heritage and personality is reflected in the design and theme.”

Helfman is confident Malaysians are ready for pizza in slices. “It’s like at 3 p.m. … You’re hungry, but you don’t want a full meal because you have dinner plans. You get a slice, and you’re done,” he said.

From a business standpoint, Helfman said he has been lucky. Mikey’s has been open for a couple of months, and people love it. Who doesn’t want high-quality pizza at an affordable price (the average price for a slice is RM12.40, or $3.80 U.S.) prepared in a reasonable amount of time?

And if it’s not pizza but another slice of Americana that you crave, Mikey’s has more to offer: You can try the Waffle Fries, Boneless Buffalo Chicken Wings and “Hot Heroes” such as the Philly Cheesesteak. Everything at Mikey’s is homemade, even the sodas, which are made with fresh strawberry, pineapple and lemon.

It’s worth noting the rents of eateries in Bangsar are sky high, at about RM48 or $14.85 U.S. per square foot. But Helfman is confident he’ll be able to make it, saying, “If you put out a good product, you’re good. Plus, we are on a great street.”

Main photo: Mikey’s Original New York Pizza owner Michael Helfman (left) and chef Andrew Bellucci at the pizzeria. Credit: Aida Ahmad

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Try Indonesia’s Must-Eat Treat, Even The ‘Devil’s’ Version Image

Finding a hot, steaming bowl of bakso in Indonesia is as easy as finding a slice of pizza in New York City.

During my recent trip to the Indonesian cities of Jakarta, the nation’s capital; Bandung, the capital of West Java; and Yogyakarta, a city in Java, street stalls on every corner were selling this signature soupy meatball dish.

I was tempted to try some bakso (pronounced BAH-so) at one of those hole-in-the-wall shacks, but was advised against doing so for fear of getting food poisoning. It is like being in India; you stay away from the street food unless a native gives you the green light, but even then you contemplate if it is a good idea.

Bakso an Indonesian comfort food

When you are in a new city, it is always good to know a local to show you the good places to eat. Fortunately for me, I stayed in touch with a friend from college, and he took me to a swanky food court at the Grand Indonesia Mall to have some bakso.

“Bakso is what we usually have at home because back in the day, the bakso seller goes around to the neighborhoods with the cart,” explained my friend Dwi Addin Wibowo, who hails from Medan, the capital of North Sumatra in Indonesia. “The ones before are nothing like what we have now. It was much simpler and cheaper.” According to Dwi, people eat bakso because of its comfort-food quality; it is like a solace to make your problems go away.

Basic bakso consists of meatballs, glass noodles and yellow noodles with spring onions and shallots, but the backbone of the soup that determines whether it is good is the broth.

“The bones/carcass of the beef is boiled for hours to get the rich flavor. It is everyone’s comfort food where you go out and buy it rather than cook it at home because it is so readily available,” he said.

Aside from the broth, the tastiness of the accompanying chilli sambal (spicy paste) is also important. One of two types of sambal usually comes with bakso; one is made from unripe green papaya and the other from fresh chillies. The latter is very hot. Some people enjoy bakso because of the addictive sambal.

“From what I have heard, bakso was actually a Chinese street food sold by Chinese vendors during the Colonial era. Of course, back then, they used pork, but now a majority of Muslim Indonesians sell the halal version, which is made from beef,” Dwi said. (Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country and the fourth most populous nation in the world).

The evolving price of bakso

So how much is a bowl of bakso? “I’m from Medan, and I have tried one there that has huge portions of tasty beef and the broth is very tasty. In 2003, it cost about 10,000 Rupiahs (87 cents U.S.) per bowl, but now it is 15,000 to 20,000 Rupiahs ($1.30 to $1.75 U.S.) per bowl.”

At high-end malls like the one we visited, a bowl is 35,000 Rupiahs ($3 U.S.).

Of course, the taste of bakso is tremendously different if you eat it at the roadside stalls. Some street stalls sell good bakso, and a local would be able to tell you where to go. “The street versions are monosodium glutamate (MSG) and preservatives-laden and not good for you. This is where most of our people consume it because of the burst of energy shots from the MSG. It is like how a cup of tea for the British solves all problems.”

I call it a sinful dish because all the MSG makes it bad for you if consumed too often, but it is so delicious. The one I had at the mall was savory and tasty to the last drop.

Tea a perfect complement

Ideally, a bowl of bakso is washed down with sweetened tea (in Indonesian, it is called “teh botol”) because the combination of the savory soup and the sweet tea is what makes the meal complete.

There are different versions of bakso, too, depending on from where in Indonesia it comes. “In Sumatra, they use more spring onions and the broth is thick, whereas in Java, they put in cabbage, bok choy and bean sprouts and the broth is watery,” Dwi said.

If you happen to be on the road in Indonesia and come across a sign reading “Bakso Setan” that is decorated with a chili logo, it literally means “Devil’s Bakso — for chili lovers.” Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Main photo: A bowl of bakso is readily available in most parts of Indonesia. Credit: Aida Ahmad

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What Makes Malaysians Love Their Curry Puffs Image

When tea time rolls around in Malaysia, curry puffs are typically one of the go-to snack choices. I think it’s the composition of the spicy flavors from the filling and the buttery, savory texture of the pastry that makes the curry puff the darling among the many snacks we have here.

In Malay, it is spelled “karipap” (pronounced curry-pahp). This humble and unpretentious local comfort food is served during various occasions — be it in a school or office cafeteria, at community gatherings or even as part of the refreshments at a news conference.

You might even say that the curry puff is the sibling of the Indian samosa and cousins with Mexican empanadas and Italian calzones. They are one of several puff-type pastries with different fillings available in Malaysia. The most common are vegetarian curry puffs with potatoes, carrots and onion as filling. Varieties include sardines and chicken and just the correct amount of spices, including curry powder and chili powder.

As with a lot of puffs, the ratio between the filling and the pastry has to be just right. Malay curry puffs tend to be sweet, while Indian curry puffs are usually the spicy variety. Bigger curry puffs often have half a hard-boiled egg inside, which gives it a richer texture.

Street stands a popular choice for curry puffs

If you ask where to get the best curry puffs around Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, there will be too many options to pinpoint them all. However, there is one stall I (and plenty more people) like, and this family-operated business has been churning out curry puffs for almost 40 years.

Their signature white van (like a food truck) parks along the main street of a predominantly affluent neighborhood in Kuala Lumpur called Bangsar. They are there every day from noon until 6 p.m. or whenever they run out of curry puffs.

Some curry puffs are huge in size and sell for RM1 or RM2 (between 30 cents and 60 cents U.S.), and these can be eaten as a complete meal. The stall also offers cute, small curry puffs sold for RM0.50 each (15 cents U.S.) that are chock full of flavor and will have you reaching for more.

Shyamini Kanagaratnam and her husband are at the helm of the business, but it is Shyamini’s 68-year-old mother, Visalatchi Thanukodi, who churns out about 400 curry puffs every day. Visalatchi still painstakingly makes curry puffs by hand. And yes, everything is gone by end of the day.

What I like about the curry puffs here is that the filling is simple and uncomplicated with just the right amount of blended spices and potatoes. “We go on vegetarian here. Our customers like it and we get new ones coming over as well,” Shyamini says.

But even with the cost of food increasing in Malaysia, Shyamini said they don’t intend to increase the price of their curry puffs, which are considered cheap. “Some of our customers still say it is expensive. We will stick with the old pricing despite produce costing a lot nowadays,” Shyamini said.

So do they plan to keep the business going? “Yes, of course. My husband loves the business and my mother doesn’t have the heart to give it up yet. It’s something we love doing, so we’ll be here for a while.”

Aside from curry puffs, Shyamini also sells tasty vadai — the well-known savory doughnut-shaped snack from South India. These are also one of my favorite snacks, be it for tea, breakfast or even lunch.

In terms of making your own curry puffs, you can buy puff pastry from the store if you don’t want to mess around with making your own. If you’d like to give the pastry a try, though, there are many ways to make it from scratch using the rubbing method with flour and butter or margarine or even filo pastry. Curry puffs can also be baked if you prefer not to deep-fry them.

Curry Puffs

This simple recipe for curry puffs comes from Rasa Malaysia.

Makes about 10 curry puffs

Ingredients

For the filling:

5 tablespoons oil

1 medium red onion, finely chopped

½ teaspoon kurma powder or chicken curry powder

2 teaspoons meat or chicken curry powder

1 teaspoon chili powder

½ teaspoon turmeric

½ cup of finely diced chicken breast meat

2 large potatoes, boiled and finely diced

1½ teaspoons sugar

½ teaspoon black pepper

½ teaspoon salt

For the pastry:

1 pound plain flour

5 ounces margarine or butter

¾ cup water

½ teaspoon of salt

Directions

For the filling:
1. Heat the oil and fry the onion gently until golden brown.

2. Add the kurma powder, curry powder, chili powder and turmeric and fry gently until well combined and fragrant.

3. Add the chicken, potatoes, sugar, pepper and salt and cook for 5 minutes. Mix well and leave aside to cool.

For the pastry:

1. Mix the flour with margarine or butter, water, salt and knead well. Let it rest for a half-hour.

2, Roll the dough out to about a quarter-inch thick and cut it into circles 3 inches in diameter.

To assemble the puffs:

1. Spread about 1 tablespoon in the middle of the pastry circles. Be sure not to use so much that it will spill out once the pastry is folded.

2. Fold the pastry over to make it a half circle and crimp at the edges.

3. Deep fry in hot oil until golden.

Top photo: Curry puffs. Credit: Aida Ahmad

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The Perfect Way To Make Tea For This And Every New Year Image

Preparing a cup of tea sounds simple enough: Put the tea bag in a cup, pour boiling water over it and let it brew. Nothing to it.

As it turns out, there is much more to it than that.

Pause and breathe in through your mouth; let the air permeate to the back of your palate. You need to feel it in your mouth and engage with it. Properly tasting tea, as I have learned, is an expertise only an English tea master could teach to a room full of Malaysian journalists during a recent master class in Kuala Lumpur. It’s a skill worth knowing beyond whenever you celebrate the New Year.

Before I delve into the technicalities of brewing the perfect cup, let me pose this question: Did you know tea has more nuances than wine? About 15,000 tea nuances can be created from two leaf species — Camellia sinensis (from China) and Camellia assamica (from India). Wine, on the other hand, has 10,000 nuances derived from eight different varieties of grapes.

These facts were presented to us through an interactive master class with Twinings ambassador and tea expert Mark Nicholls, who in his pressed black apron with its gold-etched Twinings insignia enthralled the audience with the intricacies of the second-most consumed liquid in the world — after water, of course.

How to brew a proper cup of tea

So how does one brew a cup of tea fit for the most discerning drinker? First, a kettle or pot of cold water must be freshly boiled, as this optimizes the flavor. Put the tea bag or loose leaves in a pot with a ratio of 1 gram of leaves to 100 milliliters (about 3 to 5 ounces) of water (one tea bag amounts to 2 grams of tea).

Remember, as you pour in the freshly boiled water to steep it, the water temperature has cooled down. According to Nicholls, the minimum water temperature for tea should be 167 F (75 C).

“After discovering that the average dunk time of a tea bag is 13 seconds, I shuddered with horror. You get nothing from the leaves but brown water,” he regaled in his posh London accent, much to the amusement of his eager audience.

For the best cup, allow it to steep for a maximum of three minutes. In the first two minutes of brewing, all the flavor components are released from leaf. Between minutes two and three, the antioxidants and minerals are released.

Twinings ambassador Mark Nicholls. Credit: Aida Ahmad

Twinings ambassador Mark Nicholls. Credit: Aida Ahmad

“If you pass the three-minute mark what you will get is over-steeped, bitter tea as a result of the release of heavy molecular particles,” he explained.

If you find yourself in the company of tea connoisseurs, remember not to commit the biggest faux pas of all — reusing your tea bag. “Loose tea leaves maybe, but what are you really extracting from that small tea bag?” he queried, followed by nervous laughter from some audience members who were afraid to admit committing this cardinal sin.

Caffeine, everyone’s favorite addictive stimulant, is released within the first minute of brewing tea. Yes, tea, as we know it, is caffeine bearing. Caffeine in coffee stimulates the heart and makes it race, whereas in tea it works differently. It stimulates the mind.

As proven by British folks, tea solves everything. Hard day at work? Have a cuppa tea. Dumped by your partner? Have a cuppa tea. Need a cuddle but no one is around? You get the picture.

Caffeine is associated with a high sense of well being. “Dry tea leaves have five times more caffeine than dried coffee. However, a cup of brewed coffee contains 85 to 100 milligrams of caffeine while a cup of tea has 50 milligrams. The longer you brew tea, more caffeine is released,” Nicholls said.

The way you store your tea is also important; it should be kept in an airtight container in the darkest place in your kitchen and away from direct sunlight.

One of the blends Twinings has become famous for is Earl Grey. Earl Grey was a prime minister in the United Kingdom in the 1830s, and the story goes that he had a trade delegation go to the Far East. One of Grey’s delegates managed to save the relative of a local Chinese dignitary from drowning, and as a gesture of thanks, the delegation was offered a secret recipe of tea and a citrus-fruit infusion, which was brought back to the U.K.

That special blend was given as a gift, and Grey asked Twinings to reproduce the blend for him, making Twinings the first company in the world to make an Earl Grey blend of tea, which comprises a soft Chinese tea and bergamot.

Tea rises in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands

In Malaysia, the largest tea plantation is in Cameron Highlands, a two-hour drive north of Kuala Lumpur. The highlands is nestled between 3,600 feet and 5,200 feet above sea level and has a mean annual temperature of 64 F (18 C), which makes it ideal for growing tea.

Like wine, tea can be paired with food. Black tea is best paired with desserts like cakes, sweet scones or cookies, where the bitterness of the tea can balance the sweetness from the desserts.

If you are having aromatic green tea, poultry such as chicken or even seafood goes well. As for white tea, which Twinings produces, light crackers or bread are the perfect match.

No matter what type of tea you prefer, make sure to take the time to make it right and enjoy the sensory experience.

Top photo: About 15,000 tea nuances can be created from two leaf species. Credit: Aida Ahmad

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It’s Not Thai, It’s Malaysian — And It’s Utter Bliss In D.C. Image

The interior of Malaysia Kopitiam, tucked downstairs on M Street in Washington, D.C., reminded me very much of the many local restaurants from back home in Malaysia.

I knew this place existed as I walked down 17th Street near Connecticut  Avenue, looking for some Asian cuisine to tuck into.

The bright red awning with the name “Malaysia Kopitiam” emblazoned in white is nestled near a Vietnamese restaurant and not far from the Daily Grill.

During my visit, I sat in one of the vinyl booths and perused the extensive menu filled with familiar Malaysian dishes like nasi lemak (rice cooked in coconut milk) and beef rendang (tender curried beef simmered in coconut milk and roasted dessicated coconut).

Minutes go by and two young Americans walk in to inquire about the food. “What is Malaysian food?” one asked the waitress while her friend scrutinized the names of the foreign dishes. “It’s a mix of Chinese, Indian and Malay flavors. … We have noodles and rice, too,” explained the staff. Still not convinced, the woman asked, “So, is it like Thai?” to which the waitress replied, “It’s similar, but we use different spices. You should try it.” Both women seemed hesitant, so they politely declined and left.

Chefs help customers embrace Malaysian menu

Actually, this is not the usual scenario at Malaysia Kopitiam. “A lot of Americans who come in here already know what to expect of Malaysian food. You would be surprised how adventurous they are,” said Penny Phoon, 54, the chef who owns the business with her husband, Leslie, 58. The couple lives in Falls Church, Va., with their two sons.

The owners hail from Ipoh, a city in the northern state of Perak in Malaysia. In 2000, Malaysia Kopitiam was the first Malaysian restaurant to open in the Washington, D.C., according to Penny.

“There was a café called Penang, which unfortunately closed down after two years. We feel lucky to have survived the first 10 years with the support of regular customers and our staff.  It was tough because we went through a recession, too,” she said.

Because Thai food is the more popular Southeast Asian cuisine, Penny and Leslie make it a point to educate their customers. “We tell them Thai food consists of mostly cold salads, grilled fish and the use of roots and different peppers as well as lemon and sugar. In Malaysian cooking, we use a lot of coconut and gravitate towards tamarind and lime in our dishes.”

Malaysia Kopitiam owners Penny, left, and Leslie Phoon. Credit: Aida Ahmad

Malaysia Kopitiam owners Penny, left, and Leslie Phoon. Credit: Aida Ahmad

Those with spice intolerance will ask what on the menu is spicy and what is not. “There are more adventurous ones who can eat more spicy food than we do,” Penny said.

The menu comprises mostly signature Malay, Chinese and Indian dishes from Penang and Ipoh, including roti canai (Indian-influenced circular flat bread usually consumed with curry), assam laksa (sweet, sour and spicy broth with thick rice noodles, fish, onions and mint leaves) and char koay teow (flat rice noodles fried with dark soy and chili sauce, egg, chives and bean sprouts), to name a few.

Many people have a love-hate relationship with assam laksa because of the “fishy texture.” “You either like it or hate it. If you are adventurous then go ahead, which is what I tell my customers. If I can’t decide what to eat, I will choose laksa, especially in cold winter months as warm comfort food,” Penny said.

Leslie said that apart from surviving the volatile economy, naming the restaurant was another hurdle. “We wanted to simply call it Kopitiam, but it was too generic,” he said. (“Kopi” means coffee in Malay while “tiam” means shop/cafe in the Hakka/Hokkien dialect). “So we had to go with Malaysia Kopitiam, which means Malaysia Café.”

Hung on one wall in the restaurant are the accolades they have garnered over the years. They were bestowed the title of Restaurateur of the Year in 2002 by Washingtonian magazine; 100 Very Best Restaurants Award from 2001 to 2005, and 2007 and 2008; and 100 Best Bargain Restaurants Award from 2001 to 2010, also from Washingtonian. They were also rated “excellent” by Zagat.

When I accompany Penny to the kitchen, she starts to prepare a serving of hokkien mee (thick egg noodles braised with shrimp, fish cake and cabbage in thick soy sauce). She mutters some orders to her helpers in Spanish. “I don’t speak fluent Spanish, but good enough to communicate,” she acknowledges.

I was curious as to where she sourced her spices. “It’s easy to get them from Asian markets here … stuff like turmeric, lime leaves, galangal and torch ginger are available. The first five years we had a supplier make a delivery every two months,” she said.

Penny’s mother was her biggest influence when it came to cooking. “She told me, if you want to be a good chef, you must listen to the good and bad comments. Otherwise, you won’t progress. That is why I keep as close to the ingredients in my cooking but adjust it to suit the local taste here.”

The aroma of the spices permeating throughout the restaurant and warmth from the familiar food was blissful, as I was really missing all of it for the six months I was in the U.S. It was like a home away from home.

Top photo: Assam laksa from Malaysia Kopitiam. Credit: Aida Ahmad

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Sugar Rush: Dates A Sweet Pick To Break Ramadan Fast Image

Ramadan, the fasting month that began July 9, is a time when Muslims around the world abstain from food and water from sunrise to sunset, resist temptation and desires and, more important, become introspective on spirituality.

After a full day of fasting, there is one essential starter always on the dinner table in most Muslim households: dates. In the Malay language, dates are called kurma. Eating them is like having apple pie on the Fourth of July or turkey on Thanksgiving.

The dry and sweet texture of this rich fruit (similar to prunes) derives from the Phoenix dactylifera (date palm) and has been a staple food in the Middle East for thousands of years.

A handful of these during our pre-dawn meal along with other sustenance make for a hearty supplement to last us the entire day, because they are a good source of sugar, fiber, carbohydrates, potassium and magnesium, according to associate professor Dr. Raja Affendi Ali, a consultant gastroenterologist. For breaking fast at sundown, dates are most often the first thing we reach for to replenish the sugar in our system.

About three months before Ramadan, dates are widely sold in supermarkets and wholesalers stock up for special orders for their customers, many of whom are corporate clients wanting to present packaged dates as gifts.

In Penang, Malaysia, where I’m from, a man named Mohamed Meera Sahib Noordeen operates his namesake store along Penang Street in the middle of the Little India enclave, selling dates all year long. To put it simply, he enjoys brisk business, especially during Ramadan.

The store name, Meera Sahib, is actually Mohamed’s grandfather’s name, and the store is famous for its quality dates. They even have dates named after the man himself — “Kurma Meera,” or Meera dates.

Ajwa dates. Credit: P. Nathan

Ajwa dates. Credit: P. Nathan

As you walk in to Meera Sahib, the whiff of exotic spices is comforting. Mohamed sells them along with local dried food like nuts and grains. The sacks of various types of premium dates are specially imported from countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Iran, Oman, Saudi Arabia, China and Pakistan.

The best seller among the dates is a variety of Deglet Nour from Tunisia. They are light gold in color and not very sweet. “Our online orders are really good too,” said Mohamed, adding that 15% of the store’s sales come via the Internet.

The dates are delivered all over peninsular Malaysia.

Aside from Deglet Nour, Mohamed sells Mozafati (honey dates) from Iran; Safawi, Mabroom, and Ajwa (rich, darker and sweeter in flavor) from Saudi Arabia; and Medjoul and Barhi (larger in size and sweeter) from Jordan. The most expensive of these is the Ajwa, known as the Prophet’s date.

It is learned that Prophet Muhammad always broke his fast with dates, which is why Muslims are encouraged to observe this tradition.

For Mohamed’s store, they have full-time distributors in each state in Malaysia and have a network of distributors in countries such as Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and Brunei.

One regular shopper from Penang who frequents Meera Sahib describes the establishment as a household name on the island. “The dates here are always fresh and it’s where I come to stock up on my spices,” housewife Amina Abdullah said.

During Ramadan, a deluge of dates floods the shelves in various grocery stores in Malaysia as well as Ramadan food bazaars.

Gourmet dates

Tucked in an exclusive shopping center in the Bangsar township is an upscale confectionery boutique in an affluent area of Kuala Lumpur that which sells premium gourmet dates. At Dubai-based Bateel, 100 grams of dates are sold for $10 to $15. For those willing to pay the high price, they take pride in gift-wrapping your purchases.

Stuffed dates. Credit: Bateel

Stuffed dates. Credit: Bateel

Bateel’s concept combines an exquisite blend of Arabic architecture and modern retail space reflective of the rich cultural tradition of the Gulf region. From its own groves in Al-Ghat, Saudi Arabia, it offers more than 20 varieties of high-quality dates, including Naboot Seif, Sokari, Kholas, Sekki and Khidri. All are available all year-round.

The biggest sellers are dates stuffed with pecans, orange peel and lemon peel. They replenish the stock of dates every two weeks, in line with their emphasis on strict quality control.

When I’m feeling rich (which is very rarely), I indulge on dates stuffed with lemon peel, and they are delicious.

At Bateel, some dates are marked “XPL” and “PL,” which mean “extra premium large” and “premium large.”

Because of their naturally occurring high sugar content, dates might not be good for some people, especially diabetics. However, certain varieties, like the Sekki dates, contain less sugar.

Bateel not only sells dates but also fine chocolates and chocolate truffles and many products derived from dates,  including sparkling juice, nectar, jams, biscuits and cookies.

The Medjool dates from California are always available, and these babies are bigger in size and more succulent in flavor.

“You pay a hefty price for dates here, but they make great gifts for our very important corporate clients. I guess the exclusivity comes with the territory,” said Jane Lee, a corporate communications executive from Kuala Lumpur.

Top photo: Deglet Nour dates. Credit: Bateel

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