New York - During Ramadan, the far-flung Muslim communities of the world are unified by one food: the date, one of the earliest cultivated crops and an ancient icon of the Middle East, where the thick-trunked date palm is a symbol of hospitality, rest and peace.
In the hadith, a collection of sayings attributed to the prophet Mohammed, it is recorded that he always broke the fast with dates and water, so many Muslims are careful to follow, whether the fruit is called balah (Arabic), khajoor (Urdu), hurmah (Turkish) or buah tanggal (Indonesian).
In modern communities, restaurants offer iftar specials and buffets, and all-night food markets pop up to feed the hungry throngs. Dates are always available, out of respect for tradition and because they provide a quick boost of energy for the eating to come.
"An iftar without dates would feel very strange to all the Muslims I know," said Ms Yvonne Maffei, who writes a popular cooking and nutrition blog, My Halal Kitchen, from her home north of Chicago.
"It would be like Thanksgiving without a turkey. The table doesn't look right without it."
Cooking for Ramadan seems like an oxymoron, but the two large meals of the night hours, the predawn suhoor and the sundown iftar, are opportunities for home cooks to come up with ever more alluring, filling and nourishing dishes.
"It sounds strange that Ramadan is a time for even thinking more about food," said Ms Razia Parvez, a homemaker in Boonton, New Jersey, who was born in Pakistan. "But cooking helps me get through the fast because I can smell everything and imagine the tastes that I will be serving my family later."
Muslims observing the fast try to eat extra dairy and protein at both meals to help stave off hunger the following day. Iftar invariably includes a bowl of dates and sometimes more elaborate desserts, such as pitted dates stuffed with nuts or labne (thick yogurt); ma'moul and ka'ak, round cookies filled with dates; and date paste rolled into cylinders or balls and coated with coconut.
The most elaborate desserts are saved for Eid al-Fitr, a great feast on the first night of the month that follows Ramadan, which this year falls on July 17.
Ms Shirin Farhat, an Iranian-American student in Los Angeles, said that her mother's ranginak, a traditional Persian cake of dates cooked with cinnamon and cardamom and layered with walnuts, is the dish she looks forward to all year long.
"I just take a bite of a date to break the fast," she said. "I save my appetite for ranginak."
There are three basic types of dates: soft (including barhi, halawi, khadrawi and medjool), semi-dry (like the deglet noor and zahdi) and dry (like thoori), but thousands of variations are available around the world. Their flavours range from rich molasses to light butterscotch to honey, sometimes accented with the headiness of cognac, the succulence of prunes and the burnt-sugar edge of caramel.
They are mentioned often in the Quran, the Bible and ancient Sumerian and Assyrian texts. Like all palm trees, date palms belong in the same botanical family as grasses, not fruit; that is why, nutritionally speaking, they have more in common with grains than with most fruit. Dates contain potassium, protein, iron and other minerals; they can last for years and thus have been staples of the diet of nomadic people all over the Middle East for centuries.
Along with almonds, oranges, lemons and figs, dates are a drought-resistant crop that can flourish in desert conditions, and California's Coachella Valley and the area around Yuma, Arizona, have proved ideal. Mr Robert Lower, the owner of Flying Disc Ranch in Thermal, California, has been growing dates and other fruits in the Coachella Valley since 1974.
"I was looking for something no one else was growing," he said.
At the time, he said, the demand for dates had declined as other sources of sugar became plentiful. But over the years, with the growth of the Arab-American communities in Southern California and a rising awareness of the health benefits of dates, he began to sell all the dates he could grow.
More and more of Mr Lower's customers at farmers' markets, he said, are asking for barhi dates, one of the few types that can be eaten in its yellow unripe stage (called khalal in Arabic; fully ripe, tree-dried dates are tamar, meaning sweet). Mr Mourad Lahlou, the chef at Mourad in San Francisco, grew up in Morocco and deploys khalal dates in the kitchen whenever he can get them.
"When they are young, they are crunchy and only slightly sweet, with a hint of astringency," he said, like a tart grape or crisp apple, making them great for balancing rich and savoury dishes.
But the khalal date season is very short: They are available from California and Arizona for only a few weeks of the year.
During Ramadan, many Muslim-Americans make a point of seeking out dates from their ancestors' home countries: the red-brown zaghloul from Egypt, golden barhis from Iraq, orange-brown sair dates from Iran. Throughout the Muslim world, purple-black ajwa dates from Medina in Saudi Arabia, where the prophet lived and died, are considered the finest of all.
They hardly ever make it to the United States, but chef Sameh Wadi got his hands on some recently.
"I just sat down and ate them all," he said. "Cooking an ajwa would be like deep-frying a black truffle."
New York Times