Monday, August 2, 2010

Deluge of dates

Deluge of dates

By Aida Ahmad
sundaymetro@thestar.com.my

Photos by Muhamad Iqbal Rosli, K.E. Ooi and Sam Tham

With Ramadan around the corner, dates are back in the limelight, filling the shelves of supermarkets, gourmet outlets and, soon, the street bazaars.

COME Ramadan every year, there is one thing that is always present at the table for breaking fast – dates (or popularly known as kurma in Malaysia).

This sweet fruit is part of the ritual of breaking fast because of its nutritional content. Comprising 70% sugar mainly in the form of fructose and glucose, it is thought to be a good energy booster after a day of fasting.

Mouth-watering: Christina Arulandu and husband Gunalan Pillay buying dates from Mohamed Meera (right).

It is also said that it was Prophet Muhammad’s practice to break his fast on dates, and it is therefore recommended that Muslims observe the tradition.

Dates are available all year round, but in the month of Ramadan, they are everywhere, flooding the shelves of supermarkets, grocery stores and, especially, the Ramadan food bazaars.

The varieties available are also astounding - from the fresh to the dried versions, and gourmet to the less expensive ones sold at the street stalls.

As the fruit has to be imported – from countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran to name a few – the prices will vary depending on the retailers and the source.

With Ramadan dawning soon, dates are now making their full frontal presence in supermarkets and gourmet stores. And they will literally flooded the streets once the Ramadan bazaars are set up. In Kuala Lumpur, one can shop for reasonably priced dates, such as those imported from Tunisia, at RM20 per kg at the Ramadan bazaars along Jalan Masjid India, Jalan Chow Kit and Lorong Tuanku Abdul Rahman. As Hari Raya approaches, the dates here can be had at bargain prices as traders would want to clear their stock by then.

Medjool Dates at MBG Fruitshop outlets in the Klang Valley.

In Penang, the name Meera Sahib is well known for its quality dates. A company located on Penang Street, it claims to have been in the business for well over a century and one of its products is aptly called “Kurma Meera”.

According to Mohamed Meera Sahib Mohamed Noordeen, grandson of the founder Mohamed Meera Sahib, the company imports quality dates from Egypt, Tunisia, Iran, Jordan, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Dubai (United Arab Emirates), China and Pakistan.

“We have a new brand of dates called Meera Deglet Nour from Tunisia,” says Mohamed Meera. “This is the bestseller so far. Our online orders are better this year even prior to Ramadan,” he adds, explaining that 15% of their sales are from online orders. “The dates are delivered throughout the peninsula via courier service to reach the customer the day after they place their orders. Payment is via credit cards, PayPal and through local bank transfers.”

He says that Meera Sahib was the first company to import dates from Iraq. Known as Zahidi dates, these used to be only available during the fasting month. “However, we don’t sell Zahidi dates anymore as the quality was not suitable for the Malaysian market,” he says.

Among the varieties available at Meera Sahib are the Deglet Nour and Mozafati (honey dates) from Iran; Ajwa, Safawi and Mabroom from Saudi Arabia; and Medjoul and Barhi from Jordan. The most expensive is the Ajwa (kurma nabi or Prophet’s date), which costs RM100 per kg. The name explains why it is very expensive.

Chocolate-covered dates at Bateel are the most sought-after.

Mohamed Meera says most of the varieties of dates are available throughout the year. “We have full-time distributors in each state and we also have a network of distributors in other countries such as Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and Brunei,” he adds.

Generally, Meera Sahib dates are sold at RM3 to RM85 per kg (wholesale price) and RM5 to RM100 per kg (retail price) according to the types.

This year, Meera Sahib will be sponsoring 5,000 copies of The Star in Penang and 5,000 copies in the Klang Valley and will also be giving out boxes of dates during Ramadan. “We usually begin to distribute the dates one month before Ramadan starts,” he says. (Online orders can be made at http://www.kurma.com.my/. For details, call 04-2613864.)

Another major supplier of dates, and spices as well, in Malaysia is Yusuf Taiyoob Sdn Bhd, in Bukit Minyak, Penang (04-262 7227). Proprietor Datuk Yusuf Taiyoob says the sale of dates this year has increased by as much as 20%, and it isn’t even Ramadan yet. It just goes to show how popular the fruit has become among Malaysians, although the company also supplies dates to Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Brunei. “So far it has been good. We have been able to keep up with customer demands year after year,” he replies when asked how he keeps up with the demands of customers.

Yusuf Taiyoob imports 40 to 50 types of dates from countries such as Oman, Tunisia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, South Africa and Turkey. Prices range from RM3.50 per kg to RM100 per kg. Established in 1988, it has a concept store in Penang called Souq Al-Arabia, which is on Beach Street. Yusuf says he expects to open four similar concept stores in Kuala Lumpur within the next two years.

The orange peel stuffed dates at Bateel.

If you want the Rolls Royce of dates, look no further than Bateel at Bangsar Shopping Centre. A Dubai-based company, Bateel, with its tagline “The World’s Only Gourmet Date Malaysia”, is an upscale gourmet confectionery boutique specialising in premium dates, chocolates, pastries and other gourmet products. There is another outlet in Midvalley Megamall and a retail showroom in KLCC.

Bateel’s concept depicts an exquisite blend of Arabic architecture and modern retail environment reflective of the rich cultural tradition of the Gulf region. From its own groves in Al-Ghat, Saudi Arabia, it offers more than 20 varieties of high quality dates including Naboot Seif, Sokari, Kholas, Sekki and Khidri and all are available all year round.

Bateel dates are sold at prices ranging from RM10 per 100g to RM37.50 per 100g. The biggest sellers are dates stuffed with pecans, orange peel and lemon peel. “We replenish the stock of dates at our outlet every two weeks, in line with our emphasis on strict quality control,” says Bateel sales retail supervisor Norazimah Abdul Wahab. “It definitely sells better than the chocolates.”

If you find yourself at Bateel, don’t be puzzled at the “XPL” and “PL” lable on the dates. They mean “Extra Premium Large” and “Premium Large” respectively.

Due to its high content of sugar, even though it is natural, dates might not be good for some people, and especially for diabetics. However, there are certain varieties, like the Sekki dates, which contain less sugar. “Sekki is also known to have more vitamins,” says Norazimah.

Bateel has also developed many products related to and derived from the fruit, including sparkling juice, nectar or dhibs, jams and biscuits, cookies and date chocolates as well as gourmet chocolates. Visit Bateel Asia online at www.bateelasia.com or contact 03-7963 2131.

To avoid the Ramadan rush, most supermarkets including Giant, Tesco, Jaya Jusco and Carrefour have also started selling dates. At Cold Storage in Bangsar Shopping Centre, Ajwa dates from Medina are available at RM132.99 per kg. It also sells California Medjool dates at RM69.99 per kg as well as a whole range of other imported dates from China, Saudi Arabia and South Africa. The Kalahari dates from South Africa are priced at RM139.99 for a 2kg package.

At the MBG Fruitshop, which has 17 outlets all over Klang Valley, customers can redeem a 15% discount on Medjool dates if they bring this article with them, says Adnan Lee, managing director of MBG Fruits Sdn Bhd.

(Visit http://www.mbg.com.my/ for outlet locations.)

“We sell about 3,000 boxes of Medjool dates imported from California during the fasting month,” he says. The Medjool dates are retailed at RM59 per kg. Tunisian dates priced at RM29.90 per kg are also available there.

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