Dates: The “iftari” table essential

By Madhulika Dash 

Come Ramadan, and the market places in the city start teeming with a variety of delicious dates – fresh and dried. One look at the sheer number of arrivals, and one is likely to think of the holy month as a “dates” season. 

After all, this is the only time in the year when one can possibly taste some of the best genres of dates, including Medjool, the Cadillac of dates, and Zahidi, the nobility of dates. 

But ever wondered how did dates become such a significant part of the ritual that came to existence purely to detox the body, mind and soul of any ill-will and greed (fasting is just one of the pillars of Ramadan, a month where followers of Islam are asked to abstain from any ill feeling and indulgence)? 

According to Holy Quran, the existence of dates on the iftari table is because Prophet Mohammad broke his fast with dates, a fruit which he was said to be rather fond of since childhood. Legend has it that the “love” began because Prophet’s mother was advised to sway a palm tree towards her so that fresh, ripe dates will fall on to her. 

Interestingly, back in the time, dates, given its soothing, energy-boosting nature, was used both as nourishment as well as an antidote, especially for expecting mothers and those recovering from an ailment or surgery. 

The reason for this was dates unlike other food available in the Middle East was easy on the stomach and could sustain a person for long hours. This also made dates a preferred travel food. Arab merchants, who are recognised to have introduced dates (and dried apricots) to the world, would carry bag-full of these power-foods during the arduous journey through the deserts and abandoned roads while mapping the Silk Route, and would often stop at places that had palm trees to replenish their stock. 

The easy availability, many believe, was the key reason the holy Prophet chose a 6,000 BC fruit to be the morsel to break the fast. The other reason of course was dates’ curing nature. Dates not only releases natural sugar that reaches the liver faster and then the brain, resulting in a surge of energy; it is also known to protect the digestive system from acidity and any other issues created from long hours of fasting. This along with the fact that dates were available in abundance in the Middle East (where Islam as a religion was established) made Prophet choose the fruit. 

In fact, it was the sum total of these benefits that made even Prophet say that a home, which had dates tree will never go hungry, thus elevating dates to a holy stature and an essential on the iftar table. Fascinatingly, it wasn't the first time that dates had been on focus of a ritual. 

Grown in ancient Mesopotamia and prehistoric Egypt before it found its way to Middle East – and eventually to more varieties - these fruits were a part of rituals and the royal hosting table for its sheer sweet goodness and rich texture. It is said that Egyptians would often store the fruit to be had during the summer season, where eating food became unbearable. 

People in Mesopotamia would present it as an offering to their Queen and goddess. And closer to home, Akbar, The Great celebrated Nouroz with dates, which he considered “nature’s nectar of life”. In fact, years later, dates were the only indulgence that Emperor Aurangzeb allowed himself during Ramadan, and during his last phase of life. Aurangzeb, in fact, considered dates ( and dates palm) to be the epitome of a Good Muslim, who should be sweet in nature and pious, much like the Prophet himself. 

Religion may be the reason given by many to break the fast with dates, but at the core of it is a deep understanding of the goodness of a fruit. No wonder dates and date palms find mention not once but 20 times in the Holy Quran, with the Prophet even encouraging growing of dates palm, saying: “He who eats seven Ajwah dates (the dates which he sown himself) every morning, will not be affected by poison or magic on the day he eats them.” 

Know your dates: 

Barhi Dates: Named after the hot winds, Barh, these dates are medium-sized, thin-skinned fruit with soft, tender flesh and nectar-like syrupy flavour. 

Deglet Noor Dates: A semisoft date, some of the best versions of Deglet Noor come from the US. It’s firm fleshed with a light red to amber hue. 

Halawy Dates: Known for their yellow to amber colour, these wrinkled dates are thick-fleshed, caramel-like and sweet to taste. 

Khadrawy Dates:
It is easy to confuse this variety of dates with the Halawys, but they are sweeter to taste. 

Medjool Dates:
Once worth their price in silver, these semisoft dates are sweet, moist, meaty, and firm-textured. For their sheer look and bite, these are considered to the Cadillac of dates. 

Thoory Dates: One of the finest varieties of dry dates, they are identified with their firm skin and chewy flesh. 

Zahidi Dates: A semisoft date, it has a large seed and crunchy fibrous flesh, and is often processed for sliced dates and date sugar products. The sheer size, flesh and sweetness make Zahidi, one of the royal favourites, and are used extensively to make desserts. 

Yummy Dates Recipes from 

Hot Stuffed Almond Dates 

Dates Delight 

Dates Ladoo 

Date Pudding 

Easy Dates Kheer