What is the one thing that Muslim communities all over the world eat in the month of Ramazan? Dates, of course! They are one of the earliest cultivated crops and one variety in particular is believed to have been blessed by the Prophet Muhammad himself.
Dates, also known as khajoor (Urdu), buah kurma (Malay and Indonesian), balah (Arabic) and hurmah (Turkish), are cited in the Hadith, where it has been mentioned that the Prophet used to always break the fast with dates and water.
“I call it the energy capsule,” says Mohammed Idrees Choudhury, 51. He is the fourth-generation owner of Bengaluru dry fruits shop Delicious Dates and Dry Fruits – since 1927. Choudhury stresses on the ‘since 1927’ as it was his great-grandfather who started the shop in the city’s historic Russel Market during the British era. At that time, the shop was called Delhi Fruit Stall and sold fresh fruits. Two decades later, dry fruits were introduced, thanks to the demand. But the dates available were ‘dry’. Choudhury, who credits himself for having introduced the most varieties of dates to India, said his interest in dates began when he was young and his parents had returned from Haj with dates boxes they had bought from Saudi Arabia and Jordan. “I had always been fond of dates and would sneak handfuls of them in my pockets when breaking fast,” he laughs.
From requesting Haj pilgrims to bring back 5 kilos of dates in the early days and showcasing about 30 varieties for the first time in the city 28 years ago to now, exporting about 65 varieties from Saudi and Jordan, Choudhury is the local expert. He remembers being awestruck looking at the varieties of dates when he first visited Saudi Arabia. “I was shocked to see so many varieties,” he says.
Types of dates
Although dates are of three varieties – dry, semi-dry and soft – there are hundreds of variations available. Choudhury believes there are at least 300 varieties in Saudi alone. Most of the world’s dates come from the top 10 producers belonging to the Gulf Cooperation Council, with Egypt, Saudi Arabia being the top two countries.
Dates are now cultivated in India in the Kutch region in Gujarat, Punjab, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu but this is a small number considering the demand for dates here. According to Statista Research Department, India imported approximately 282,000 tonnes of dates in 2019.
During Ramazan, Muslims observing fast have the pre-dawn sehri and the sundown iftar which are nourishing and filling meals. But no meal is begun without having dates first.
Hyderabad-based associate professor Ismath Sabeena looks forward to breaking fast with Kimia dates from Iran. “It’s instant energy. The Kimia dates are sweet and juicy, and we usually exchange packets with friends and family members.”
Bengaluru-based home chef Hina Khan usually breaks fast with her family, including her two daughters, with specially prepped Safawi dates. “I spend Ramazan days deseeding the dates and stuffing them with roasted almonds,” she says. Through her home business, The Fat Cat Eats and Paisley – “don’t even ask,” she laughs, “the name was chosen by my daughters after our house cat” – she prepares date squares which are especially popular with her customers.
Although days are spent fasting, there is plenty of thought given to the preparation of meals. Dates, of course, feature prominently. Hina prepares talbina or barley porridge according to her mother’s recipe. “Barley is cooked in milk, sweetened with dates and topped with dry fruits. My mother would make it for my daughters. Now, my daughter cooks and purees the dates and uses it as sweetener for any dish. Earlier, people didn’t have much idea about dates, but today, they are aware of the varieties and the health benefits.”
This year, Choudhury’s shop is packed with shoppers enticed by his special Ramazan offer of Rs 900 for 3 kilos of dates. But clearly, it is his knack of matching dates with ailments that is attracting long-term customers. “Three dates a day downed with a cup of milk or cucumber (to neutralize the heating property of dates) will keep the doctor away,” he declares. This is a 40-day course that, according to him, cures ailments and energises the body.
Ex-Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah and several other high-profile customers have looked to Choudhury for his recommendations. Apart from the 40-day course, Choudhury espouses Ajwa dates for heart blockages, Medjool dates for potassium, calcium and improving hormone regulation, Kalmi dates for blood count, Sukri dates for calcium, and a particular variety of Jordan dates for its totally sugar-free properties. “Dates have natural glucose and by eating three a day, there are a lot of health benefits. The cost is less than Rs 6 a day and we won’t even get a decent chocolate for that amount.”
Talking of costs, the price of dates ranges from Rs 200 to Rs 1,800 for a kilogram. The small-sized Irani Muzufan is Rs 200 per kg which has approximately 100 dates, whereas Medjool King dates cost Rs 1,800 per kg and because of their big size, there are just 32 dates in a kilo. Ajwa dates, which is believed to have been blessed by the Prophet, cost Rs 1,200-1,400 per kg, and are preferred by many. “Nothing gets wasted in it,” Sabeena says, “as even the seeds are powdered and used for its medicinal value.”
Choudhury believes that dates with seeds are better than the ones stuffed with chocolates or almonds. “Seeds are essential for retaining the goodness of the dates.” And dates, which helped the Prophet and his followers survive in the deserts, are quite the essence of the holy month of fasting.
The purple-black Ajwa dates from Medina, the Prophet’s hometown, are considered to be the finest of all dates.
Sugai dates are two-toned, with ripe and unripe portions, the white portion is rich in calcium and the brown portion is good for blood count and other health benefits.
Date palms are from the same botanical family as grass.