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DHAKA: Gulf varieties of dates are the favorite ones among Bangladeshis, with many making sure that the Saudi or Emirati fruits will be on their iftar tables, despite their high price.

One of the earliest crops cultivated in the Arabian Peninsula, the date is also grown in Egypt — the world’s main producer — and in other North African and Middle Eastern countries, as well as the US, Pakistan and China.

Rich in potassium, protein, iron and other minerals, the fruit is one food that unifies Muslims all over the world during the fasting month of Ramadan, as it is recorded in the hadith that the Prophet Muhammad always broke his fast with dates and water.

There are hundreds of date varieties — soft and dry — with flavors ranging from rich molasses to honey, sometimes with hints of caramel, prunes, cinnamon or burnt sugar.

The purple-black Ajwa dates from Madinah in Saudi Arabia, where the prophet lived, are considered the finest of all.

In Bangladesh, 1 kg of Ajwa or another Saudi variety, the amber-red Maryam, which has a firm flesh and delicate flavor, costs about $18, followed by the very sweet Medjool dates at $15, the soft and sticky Mabroom sold for $8, and the smaller but smooth Dabbas dates from the UAE, which cost about $6.

Cheaper fruits, like the Zahidi variety from Iraq, cost about $3 per kg.

“Maryam, Medjool, Ajwa, Mabroom are in high demand … People who can afford them love to buy Saudi dates,” Noruddin Ahmed, secretary of the Bangladesh Fruits Importer Association, told Arab News.

The association represents 500 companies, which in addition to Saudi Arabia and the UAE also import dates from Egypt, Iraq and Algeria.

“We have a demand of 80,000 tons of dates annually … Seventy percent of our annual demand is consumed in Ramadan alone,” Ahmed said.

“Most of our dates are imported from Saudi Arabia and UAE. Around 40 percent of dates are imported from these two Gulf countries.”

Even though Saudi and Emirati fruits are more expensive than others, they dominate the market and sentiment in Bangladesh, a country of 170 million people, where over 90 percent profess Islam.

“Ajwa dates from Madinah are my favorite dates. They are black and the seed inside is very small compared with other varieties. It is very soft and mouthwatering,” said Hannan Khan, a resident of the Gulshan neighborhood in Dhaka.

“Sometimes I also buy the Maryam variety. It’s a bit reddish and about 1.5 inches long. One can differentiate Maryam very easily due to its distinctive taste.”

The natural sugars in dates give a quick energy boost after a day of fasting, besides containing other essential nutrients. While the amount of sugar in dates is high, its glycemic index is low, making it safer than other sweet foods.

“People of all ages in my family can have it, and it has no side effects. That’s why we have dates during iftar on every day of Ramadan,” said Farida Parveen, a homemaker from Dhaka’s Mohammadpur area.

Her favorite variety is the soft and chewy Medjool, which has a distinctive caramel taste with hints of vanilla and can reach up to 3 inches in length.

“Two or three pieces are enough for an adult at an iftar table,” Parveen said.

“I can’t imagine iftar without dates, as they provide much energy after fasting hours … Putting dates on iftar plates has become a tradition in our culture. My parents did the same.”

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