A very special date: Ramadan and a ripening fruit industry

Dusk is fast approaching in Finsbury Park, north London, as people duck in and out of small supermarkets, stores, and halal butcher shops on Blackstock Road, a street popular with the area’s Muslim community. The end of Ramadan is near, and shoppers are making sure they have everything they need for Eid al-Fitr, the important Islamic celebration that concludes the month of holy fasting for many of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims (Pew Research).

Food and family are central to Eid, which started on Thursday evening. Among the eclectic variety of dishes dotted on tables from Malaysia to Morocco, Iraq to Indonesia, and from Turkey to Tunisia, one fruit is ubiquitous in nearly all households: the date.

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Dates are a cultural and religious unifier that cut across distinct national cuisines, according to Hakim, a French-Algerian co-owner of a small supermarket on Blackstock Road. Although hurried by the last flurry of customers making their way home to break the day’s fast, he still found time to talk to regulars, alternating between French, Arabic, and English. Hakim showed WikiTribune the two varieties he had on offer – one kilo (two pound) boxes of Deglet Nour and Khalas dates. Another popular variety, Medjool, had already run out.

Rich and revered history

Dates are a staple fruit in North Africa and the Middle East, and are among the oldest cultivated foods in human civilization. They appear in archaeological records from the Middle East and Asia’s Indus Valley dating back millennia, and are mentioned several times in the three central Abrahamic religion texts: the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Qur’an.

‘They were unheard of 30 years ago. But they started invading the market 10 years ago’

But the fruit, which grows bunch-like on date palms, occupies a place of particular reverence in Islam. It is mentioned 22 times in the Qu’ran – more than any other fruit – and believers say the Prophet Muhammad extolled its health benefits (Smithsonian Magazine).

During Ramadan, millions of Muslims break the day’s fast and begin their evening meal – known as iftar – with dates. High in sugars, nutrients, and fiber, dates are a healthy appetizer for people who often spend over 12 hours a day without eating or drinking. They can be eaten in a number of different ways: fresh, dried, blended, or cooked into pies and meals.

Growing worldwide appeal

The nutritious fruit has become steadily more popular around the world in the past two decades. According to research by the International Nut and Dried Fruit Council (INC), a trade and consumer organization, their production from 2007 to 2018 was 40 percent higher than the previous decade. Exports went up by 57 percent from 2006 to 2016, as did imports. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated that almost 8.5 million tonnes of dates were produced in 2016.

Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Tunisia, and Egypt are the top five producers for table dates – a category that doesn’t include in bulk or processed dates – for 2017-2018, according to the INC. Meanwhile, Israel is the world’s largest producer of Medjools (Haaretz) – the “queen of all dates,” according to Nawal Nasrallah, a U.S.-based Iraqi author who wrote Dates: A Global History. California, Arizona, and Texas grow the Deglet Nour variety.

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India is the largest global importer of dates and date products. In 2016, it imported more of the fruit than the next nine countries combined – 350,000 tonnes, or just over a third of the world’s total imports, most from Iraq and Pakistan (download trade map). The country’s appetite for the sugary fruit more than tripled over the past decade.

Asked whether dates are going mainstream outside of the Muslim world, Nasrallah, told WikiTribune: “Definitely … We need more of these. I think they need to make them known better. Traders need to know that there is a future in these. Lots of work is needed, but it’s worth it.”

Boxes of date fruits on display in a shop near Finsbury Park, north London. Photo by George Engels/WikiTribune CC-BY-SA 4.0
Boxes of date fruits on display in a shop near Finsbury Park, north London. Photo by George Engels/WikiTribune CC-BY-SA 4.0

The UK

Meanwhile, the UK is the tenth largest global importer of dates, with a little over 25 percent growth over the past decade. The country brought in just over 20,000 tonnes in 2016, according to the INC. The British market is focused on high-quality dates – bigger, fleshier, tastier – according to Zayne Abudaka, a London-based Palestinian economist and agribusiness consultant.

Abudaka would know: he’s been helping a Palestinian Medjool producer to try to sell the last 30 tonnes of a 450 tonnes shipment, most of which was imported into the UK to meet the increased demand during Ramadan and Eid. Now, the 30 tonnes of dried fruit – roughly the weight of 30 small cars – sit stacked in rows in a chilled warehouse in the port of Kingston upon Hull, a city on England’s eastern coast.

Medjool date producers, like the one Abudaka is helping in exchange for a commission, can charge exporters roughly $3.5 per kilo. But an ongoing “misunderstanding” between the exporter and the producer over the dates’ varied sizes and other issues means that these might not reach established supermarkets, which prefer large or jumbo sized Medjools, according to Abudaka. The producer could be roughly $100,000 out of pocket.

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Still, a dispute that might otherwise sour a business relationship is being handled prudently. “[The producer] exports so much for us, so we’re not going to fight with him over 30 tonnes. He’s not willing to lose the exporter just because of this misunderstanding,” Abudaka told WikiTribune.

He says it’s an example of commercial long-term thinking as dates become more popular throughout the Western world. Now, high-end UK chains like Harrods and Harvey Nichols stock them. Luxury retailers like Bateel offer a range of dates stuffed with roasted and caramelized nuts, as well as other more adventurous fillings, such as candied ginger.

Blackstock Road

This growth in demand and quality hasn’t gone unnoticed by smaller London shopkeepers. “They were unheard of 30 years ago. But they started invading the market 10 years ago,” said Hakim. He mostly sells Medjool, Deglat Nour, and Khalas dates, three relatively expensive varieties which cost consumers between £5 to £12 ($6.6 – $16) per kilo.

A few shops down the road, Salam Butchers owner Mohammed told WikiTribune he only buys good quality dates rather than the lower quality variety that used to don UK tables around Christmas. He said many non-Muslims are now discovering the fruit, but that it remains most popular among the area’s Muslim community. Mohammed was in a hurry, however, and wasn’t in the mood to linger. Iftar was only 15 minutes away and he needed to close the shop so he could get home to his family.

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