Around 1400 years ago in Saudi Arabia, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the first community of Muslims broke fast for the first time with the main crop of Medina: dates.
Ever since then, Muslims have commemorated the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, Ramadan, by fasting from sunup to sundown every day, just as the first community did. And, in keeping with their way, most of us start our iftar, the fast-breaking meal, with a date.
Aside from the fact that dates are important in the Islamic tradition, with various references to them in statements from the Prophet (peace be upon him) and even verses of the Qur’an, dates are packed with nutrients, making them the perfect appetizer to begin a meal after a long day of fasting.
Despite my Indo-Pakistani background, growing up in the United States has given me the opportunity to celebrate Ramadan with a very diverse community of Muslims. I have had iftar with people from almost every corner of the world — China, Russia, Indonesia, Sudan, Guatemala and Jordan, to name a few. Ramadan traditions are as varied as the cultures that celebrate the month. But no matter who I celebrated iftar with, a plate of dates was invariably set at the table to begin the meal.
As a child, I always skipped the dates in favor of other Ramadan treats, such as samosas and pakoras. But the first time I completed an entire fast on my own, someone handed me a date just as the sun set, and, in my hunger, I devoured it immediately.
Hunger is the best sauce, as they say. But somehow, the bliss I felt eating a date that day never entirely wore off, and I have spent every Ramadan since then trying different types of dates and enjoying the many creative ways people have served them.
My favorite dates are Medjool dates, because they are big, soft, chewy and packed with flavor. And they are easy to stuff — a huge plus when you want to get fancy.
On April 13, the second pandemic-era Ramadan began. This meant another Ramadan without the huge iftar parties with extended family and community members that make each one so memorable.
Last year, I decided that the closest way to normalcy would be to make all different types of dates I had had at different people’s houses at my home, so I called up friends and relatives for their recipes. I ended up using many of those recipes throughout the year, and since I believe every person deserves to enjoy dates in the best way possible, I am going to celebrate this Ramadan by sharing my three favorite recipes.
Growing up, iftars at my aunt’s house always commenced with buttery, chewy on the inside, crispy on the outside dates. She moved away a few years ago, leaving me nostalgic for the magical taste that I could never recreate. When I finally asked for the recipe, I discovered her unhealthy secret: a couple dates fried in three tablespoons of butter over medium-high heat until crispy.
I know, I know — dates are already packed with calories. Honestly, though, one would be hard-pressed to find a fasting person who really cares how healthy the dates are. After spending 12 to 16 (or more!) hours daydreaming about food, all you care about is fulfilling every craving you had that day. Take it from someone who is fasting right now and has baked enough desserts to feed the neighborhood.
When I’m trying not to indulge, however, I use dates to make a healthier alternative to cereal. I know that cereal is technically a breakfast item, but come on, who makes the rules? Iftar seems like just as good a time as any. I am proud to say that dates soaked in milk with chopped walnuts are an awesome iftar item and my own recipe. Just put about one-fourth cup of chopped walnuts and one-fourth cup of chopped Medjool dates in as much milk as you like and enjoy out of a bowl with a spoon — like cereal! It’s refreshing with a mixture of soft and crunchy, a perfect blend of textures and tastes.
Finally, my absolute favorite: the Greek yogurt dates dish. Taken from a beloved family friend, this dish has become a staple in my life.
One chopped apple, two cups of honey greek yogurt — my allegiances lie with the Trader Joe’s brand — one-fourth cup of chopped mint and a cup of chopped dates, all mixed together in a dish and topped with caramelized pecans: It’s absolutely heavenly. The little pieces of dates provide a tiny burst of sweetness, while the caramelized nuts provide a crunch. Those paired with the refreshing tastes of minty Greek yogurt and juicy apple make for a heavenly snack, dessert or meal replacement.
Whether you observe Ramadan or not, I think that once you try these recipes, you will find yourself constantly daydreaming about each of these dishes. Consider yourself warned: You are in danger of a date dependency.
Maryam Khan SC ’23 is one of TSL’s food columnists. She is a writing and rhetoric major who enjoys reading, writing and all kinds of food.