It is a time of happiness and refreshment as the fast is broken at sunset, after experiencing the pangs of hunger and thirst. From Sherbet to Harira to Kepsa and Harees, the ceremonial dining spread is filled with nourishing treats… But at the centre of all the delicacies is the dark textured, humble yet ever-so-sweet, dates!
Muslims around the world traditionally break their daylong Ramadan fast with the blessed fruit, abundant in health and nutritional benefits.
"For Muslims, date is most revered, as it has received preference over all the other fruits in Islam. It is categorized amongst the fruits of heaven, and nonetheless, dieticians recommend dates as an excellent source of nutrition and inseparable part of a balanced diet," says Bader Al Siyabi, Director, Date palm department, Ministry of Agriculture.
With the demand for dates shooting to almost double the normal during Ramadan, it is expected to reach 15000 tonnes by the end of the holy month, according to Bader. (The annual consumption in Oman is estimated at 150,000 tonnes.) Owing to demand, and people looking for even more varieties, dates from other countries were also being sold- majorly from Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iran, and Algeria, he revealed further. Dates from Saudi Arabia were the most in demand, especially due to their spiritual significance.
According to the floor manager at the Ghubra Bausher Lulu hypermarket, Ajwa from Medina was the most sought after, followed by Khadari, Munaifi, and Mabroom. "We are selling around 500 kg per day of only the Saudi dates. Ajwa especially is very often out of stock, as almost all customers buying dates would certainly buy some quantity of the Ajwa as well."
Prices were also hugely varying and fluctuating- ranging from OMR14 per kg for the much revered Ajwa variety from Medina in Saudi Arabia to the 600 baiza local Khunaizi and Negal varieties.
"At the start of harvest season in May, the same dates selling today at 600-900 baiza per kilo were priced at OMR5-7.5. The prices also keep fluctuating by day according to demand. If the demand grows high, the prices go even higher. Sometimes when the supply is ample, the prices are moderate," said a vendor at the Mabela vegetable market.
The market's local favourite, Al Khunaizi — the large, red variety known for its lush taste and nutritive quality, which was quoted at OMR2.500 per kg at the start of the season, has come down to 600 Baiza per kg, as the market gets swamped with dates, with the season peaking.
In Omani dates, Al Khalas remains the cultivar of the highest quality, according to Bader. With 75% of the cultivated land dedicated to date farming, the fruit is produced almost in parts of the country, with Nizwa and Suwaiq being the focal centers along-with the various wilayats of the Interior and Sharqiya regions, and the current season saw a produce of 238 thousand tonnes.
Oman has more than 250 indigenous varieties of dates, out of which, the most relished for their delectable taste and succulence are Khalas, Khunaizi and Fargh. In northern Oman, the hub of date harvest is Fanja souq in Bid Bid wilayat.
Since mid-May, the beginning of the harvest season, the market becomes inundated with freshly harvested dates, brought by the truckload from Bid Bid, Dima wa' Tayeen, Samad A'Shan, Al Rowdha, Samayil and even Bausher in Muscat Governorate.
The Ash Patash and Al Nagal varieties are among the first to hit the market, but not as sweet as the ones that followed. As the harvest season progressed, dates of the Al Khunaizi variety, described as the most sugary in taste, and Al Khalas, billed as the most delicious, also entered the market- followed closely by Al Mebselli and Al Khasab varieties.
However, some quantities of dates, especially of the coveted Al Khalas and Al Khunaizi varieties, were left on the tree to naturally ripen, thus allowing the fruit to acquire its full taste and flavour, Badar told. "These are harvested en masse during the second stage of the harvest — popularly called Al Tamer. The Al Tamer harvest generally represents dates of guaranteed taste, flavour and quality. The annual yield of a single tree may reach 270 kg, with each cluster of dates weighing up to 12 kg."
Although dates can be eaten fresh, the fruit is very often dried, resembling raisins or plums. "When purchasing dates, look for those which are plump and have an even color. The dates will usually either be fresh Rutabs (moist dates), or Tamr (dry dates)," maintained Bader.
When unripe, the dates can be bright yellow or red in color, and when ripe are brown and shriveled, similar to a prune. There are several different varieties of dates grouped together into three main groups based on their sugar content - soft, semi-dry, and dry.
Selection of dates was easy, according to Bader- the good ones being which appeared fleshy and evenly colored.
Storing is also easy, as they are dry fruits and hassle free to store. Fresh dates could be kept in refrigerator in an airtight container for up to six months. The dried ones have a shelf life of up to one year.
"Freezing is also a storage option that allows for an even longer lifespan when kept in an airtight plastic bag or container. However, the traditional Omani method of preserving the dates in clay pots could enable a shelf life of many years," revealed Bader.
Available in a lot of variety, dates can be introduced in daily diet in any form. It can be introduced in the healthy form of snack, topping, or a wholesome fruit itself. It can also be chipped and sprinkled on sweet dishes, cakes and puddings, enhancing both the deliciousness, and the appearance of the delicacies. Popular uses include date vinegar, chutney, date paste, halva (sweetmeat), and as flavoring agent. The tree's buds (hearts of palm) also serve as tasty additions to salads.
One fruit, many benefits
Having both spiritual as well as physical benefits, breaking the fast with dates is a Ramadan tradition, as most of its benefits are unique to the fast. During the fasting, lasting from sunrise to sunset, the body can develop mild health problems such as headaches, low blood sugar, and lethargy. To avoid such problems, one should carefully monitor their eating habits once fasting for the day has ended, says Stefan Kasapis, eminent researcher and former Associate Professor at the Department of Food Science & Nutrition, Sultan Qaboos University.
Breaking the fast with heavy meals was not healthy for the body, which was in a weakened state, according to Stefan. "Eating a date helps the body start its digestive process and also gives it the energy to deal with the secondary, more complex foods, eaten during iftar. The carbohydrates found in dates also make the fruit a slower digesting food, much better than fried or fatty foods which digest fast and leave one hungry for more," he said.
Dates are an excellent source of fiber, sugar, magnesium, potassium, and have carbohydrates which aid the body in maintaining health. According to Stefan, Dates have a number of easily digestible minerals, vitamins, and health-benefiting phytonutrients, allowing the body to make full use of their goodness.
Dietary fiber in dates acts as an excellent natural laxative, and helps prevent LDL (bad) cholesterol absorption by binding with substances containing cancer-causing chemicals. The iron content determines the balance of oxygen in the blood. Potassium helps regulate the heart rate and blood pressure.
B-vitamins contained in dates, such as the carotenes lutein and zeaxanthin, absorb into the retina to maintain optimal light-filtering functions and protect against macular degeneration."Together, the cofactors help the body to metabolize carbohydrates, protein, and fats. Eating dates in moderation can contribute to many health benefits," said Stefan.
The fruit also protects the eyes, helps maintain healthy skin and mucus membranes, and even proves effective in preventing lung and oral cancer. Tannins, which are flavonoids as well as polyphenolic antioxidants, fight infection and inflammation and help prevent excessive bleeding (anti-hemorrhagic). Vitamin K is a blood coagulant that also helps metabolize bones.
Copper, magnesium, manganese, vitamin B6, niacin, pantothenic acid, and riboflavin are also present in dates and provide their own unique preventive and healing functions. Consumption of only fifteen dates can satisfy the daily requirements for essential vitamins, minerals and other trace elements for an adult person.
A compulsory starter during the holy month, the crown fruit of Arabia is also an excellent breakfast fruit- providing a trove of health benefits, especially when consumed first thing in the morning. —
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