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.
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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.
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.
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.
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