A date with dates: How the fruits are an essential part of the Ramzan diet
As Ramzan approaches, dates will again be an unmissable part of feasts across the globe, in its natural form, or as part of innumerable dishes
In Muslim homes, the weeks leading up to Ramzan are filled with great expectation — not just of spiritual succour, but also of some culinary expeditions.
This year, Ramzan is expected to begin in mid-April, after the sighting of the crescent moon. The ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, it prescribes dawn-to-dusk fasting. And this fasting is naturally accompanied by feasting, in various degrees of richness. The Ramzan spread has to have a little of everything — warm soups, cold sherbets, fried snacks, grilled meats, gravies and rice dishes — but it is the date, the small fruit of the Phoenix dactylifera L. palm, that crowns the table globally, especially during iftar (breaking of the fast).
Eating dates after the maghrib (evening) call to prayer during Ramzan is considered to signify the commencement of the iftar. They are also eaten by many Muslims as part of the pre-dawn suhour meal.
The maamoul is a date-filled cookie that is made in big batches during Ramzan in Arab countries. Photo: Sawsan Abu Farha/Special Arrangement
“The sugar in dates keeps your energy levels high, and its high fibre content also makes you feel full for a longer time, which is why it is commonly eaten during both iftar and suhour. But more than the science, Muslims cherish the date because of its associations with Prophet Muhmamad’s traditions,” says Delhi-based celebrity chef and writer Sadaf Hussain, who has chronicled Islamic recipes and the stories behind them from across India in his 2019 book Daastan-e-Dastarkhan: Stories and Recipes from Muslim Kitchens (Hachette).
In India, where processed dates are becoming more common on shop shelves as contemporary syrups and jams, heritage dishes from the erstwhile princely states use the fruit in both chutneys and pickles. Chef Hussain’s take on this old recipe uses plums, jamun fruit and date pulp, spiced with chillies and chaat masala to create a piquant chutney.
“Last year I tweaked the recipe for a Kashmiri Ramzan beverage called babribyol, which is usually made with sabja (basil) seeds, milk, sugar, saffron and coconut shavings. I replaced sugar and blended the milk with dates, which made it into a nice thick shake. Such smoothies can easily be substituted for the sugary bottled fruit cordials that we commonly have for iftar,” says Hussain, who has also made cheesecake with date pulp.
To make date paste at home, simply deseed the fruit and blend the pulp in a mixer, or knead manually with a small amount of water.
This year, Hussain is in talks for a pop-up restaurant on an all-vegetarian Ramzan menu platter-to-order in Delhi and Lucknow. “I have always tried to break the stereotype that the typical Muslim diet is only about biryani, korma, and kebabs. We have a healthy selection of vegetarian dishes,” he says.
In Arab countries, where dates are a major agricultural crop, both religious tradition and culinary affiliation make them a very commonly used ingredient throughout the year. “Dates in the Levant are an integral part of the cuisine especially when it comes to baked goods. If you walk into any bakery in the morning, you are sure to find freshly baked date-filled bread rings. They are a popular breakfast item that many people pick up on their way to school or work,” writes Sawsan Abu Farha, a food writer based in Jordan, who blogs as Chef in Disguise, in an email interview.
The weeks before Ramzan are a time for Arab families to stock up on dates to enjoy them as is or to use them in various recipes during the holy month.
Plum and dates chutney. Photo: Sadaf Hussain/Special Arrangement
Among the most popular of these is the cookie called maamoul, made by filling balls of a soft and buttery semolina and flour dough with date paste. Long-handled wooden moulds are used to imprint pretty designs on the maamoul tops, and then baked in a medium oven.
Plum and dates chutney
- 300 gm plums
- 250 gm jamuns
- 4-6 tsp jaggery powder
- 50 gm dates
- 2-3 green chillies
- 1/12 tsp fennel seeds
- A pinch of fenugreek seeds
- 8-10 green cardamoms
- 4-6 small pieces of cinnamon
- Salt to taste
- 1 tsp chaat masala
- 1 tsp sesame seeds (optional)
- Boil the plum, jamun and dates together, till they become soft and fork tender. In a mixing bowl or mortar pestle, grind all the dry spices with green chilli. Take plum, jamun and dates, retain some water but throw away rest or use it to make a beverage. Make a rough paste of these fruits, and put it back in a saucepan. Cook this paste for five5 minutes with the spice mixture, and check the seasoning. When the chutney becomes homogenous and tastes delicious, toss in toasted sesame seeds. Serve chutney with bread, roti or rice.
- Recipe by Sadaf Hussain
“Maamoul is the ultimate cookie to make for Eid al Fitr (the festival that marks the end of Ramzan). We greet our guests on Eid morning with fresh coffee, a bowl full of dates and lots of maamoul and ka’ak (ring cookies),” says Sawsan.
Interestingly, maamoul is also made for Easter by Arab Christians, and the Purim festival by Jews, showing the biscuit’s sweet ties with the region’s history.
Ready to snack
Date paste finds its way into other delicacies also, like tamer-bi-simsim, where it is rolled in roasted sesame seeds and served as a quick snack, in Arabian Gulf countries. Pitted dates are also used as a casing for nuts like almonds and walnuts, and served plain, or dipped in chocolate ganache.
What many may not know is that the Ramzan diet has instructions not only for fasting, but also for the feasting, adds Sawsan. She writes, “We are told to start the iftar with some dates. After this, one is encouraged to go pray before eating the main meal, because this short break gives the body time to metabolise the dates and water that have been consumed and to start the body’s digestive processes, which have been resting all day. It’s like allowing your car to warm up before driving it.”