Like almost 2 billion people worldwide, Muslims in Maine started their month-long holy fast of Ramadan on the evening of April 2.

So every day until the fast-breaking feast of Eid al-Fitr, on May 1 this year, observant Muslims don’t eat or drink even a sip of water from dawn to dusk during the most holy month on the Muslim calendar. They end each daily fast with an evening meal known as iftar. Because Muslims comprise one of the world’s most diverse communities, traditional dishes vary from region to region, whether it be Indonesia, the Middle East, North Africa or right here in Maine.

But even before the full iftar meal, the first food Muslims eat each night during Ramadan is likely to be one type or another of sticky-sweet date.

“Regardless of where you’re from, you’re breaking your fast with dates,” said Mohamed Abrahim, showing a visitor around his family’s store, Foodie Friends Grocery on Forest Avenue in Portland. “It’s something people can’t argue with. God said it in the Quran.”

The Prophet Mohammed was said to break the daily Ramadan fast by eating three dates, along with some water.

“Since then, out of respect to Mohammed, eating dates to break the fast has become common practice for Muslims of all countries, cultures and races,” said Reza Jalali, executive director of the Greater Portland Immigration Welcome Center, and author of the 2010 children’s book, “Moon Watchers: Shirin’s Ramadan Miracle.”

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Mohamud Mohamed, Imam of the Maine Muslim Community Center, said the Prophet Mohammed also counseled followers to eat odd numbers of dates, like three, five or seven.

“I don’t like to eat sweets much, but I eat three dates to break the fast at Ramadan. I like the medjool dates from California, which don’t taste as sweet as some other kinds,” he said.

Dates are a stone fruit, like peaches or olives, and an iconic ingredient to the Muslim community, a kind of sacred fruit at Ramadan. “Dates are very important during Ramadan,” said Mashan Manahe, manager of Sinbad Market in Portland. “Your body needs the sugar after fasting for more than 12 hours.”

Adding dates into a chicken recipe. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Beyond following Mohammed’s example, the reasoning for breaking fast with dates is quite practical. Candy-sweet dates replenish low blood sugar, while their significant fiber content keeps the sugar from being released too quickly and helps fasters feel sated. Abrahim said many Muslims find the dates help them digest the iftar meal after many hours without solid food. The fruits are also a good source of nutrients like potassium and magnesium.

Dates in demand this month

A large package of medjool dates at Foodie Friends Grocery on Forest Avenue. This is one of just two date varieties you can often find at the supermarket; the other is deglet noor. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Middle Eastern markets in Portland, many clustered around Woodfords Corner, feature large displays in the front of their shops of various kinds of dates imported from the UAE, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and other date-growing hubs. They come dried and fresh, pitted and whole, pressed into pastes and stuffed into shortbread cookies like a date version of Fig Newtons. They’re stacked in 1-, 2- and 5-pound boxes and plastic bins that fly off their shelves during Ramadan.

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Fawaz Hassan, owner of the Makkah Market on Vannah Avenue, said he sells as much as five times more dates during Ramadan than the rest of the year. Abrahim said Foodie Friends sees similar demand.

“When I order dates, I don’t think about a budget, because I know they’re going to sell,” Abrahim said.

Manahe said the two Portland-area markets he manages sell as much as four tons of dates a year. “Some customers eat dates three, four times a day, because the date is very healthy,” he said. “You can eat it any time of day.”

“Throughout the year, many Muslims eat dates,” said Jalali. “It’s not just for Ramadan.” Jalali estimated that Maine now hosts as many as 25,000 Muslims and at least seven mosques.

Manahe is diabetic, so needs to watch his sugar consumption, limiting himself to a few dates now and then. He said he prefers dates from Algeria, which he said are not as sweet as some other varieties.

Gateway dates for picky palates

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Abrahim said dates are often eaten out of hand, as-is, but can sometimes be ground and mixed with water, semolina and ghee butter to make a date porridge. He has no doubt about his own favorite date variety – fresh sukkari dates. He pulled a 2-pound plastic tub of Saudi Arabian sukkaris from the refrigerator, because fresh dates should be refrigerated, and held it with a kind of reverence.

“This, honestly, is a game-changer,” he said, explaining that he considers it a gateway date, the perfect variety for people who don’t think they like dates. Sukkari dates – only available in season, from spring until midsummer – often have spots where natural sugar has crystallized, giving them tantalizing texture contrast, supple with a wee crunch and rich, caramel flavor.

“I tell customers that if they buy them and don’t like them, I’ll give you your money back. Nobody has ever come back to say they didn’t like them,” he said.

Yet for most American consumers, dates are one of the lesser-known fruits, despite multimillion dollar crops in California’s Coachella Valley, which provides the vast majority of this country’s dates, usually the medjool and deglet noor varieties.

Ripe dates are left to dry slightly before being picked from the date palms they grow on. Dried dates are not fully dehydrated, but their sugars and texture have been concentrated, making them slightly chewy and intensely sweet. Fresh dates are picked at or just before peak ripeness. They look wrinkled like their dried counterparts, but contain more water, which gives them a softer consistency and slightly milder sweetness.

D stands for Date Night! On the left, the straight line of the D, are ajwa dates. The light-colored dates are sukkari, which are interspersed with medjool dates to form the curve of the letter. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

If you’re date-curious, this month is the time to grab some, while the selection is widest. Fresh dates will keep for six months if kept chilled, while dried dates stored in an airtight container will last up to three years, making them a great pantry-stocking item. Here are some of the more popular varieties you can find in Portland Middle Eastern markets and supermarkets now, along with three recipes to put them to use.

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Medjool: These large, dark brown dates are sold dried. They’re dark brown, moist and tender, with a satisfying chew and deep molasses flavor. Medjool dates have become one of the most commonly available varieties in the United States, sold year-round at Hannaford Supermarkets by Natural Delights brand.

Deglet Noor: Another more common variety, originating from Algeria, deglet noor dates are smaller and lighter brown than medjools, with a firmer texture and less intense sweetness. Date aficionados refer to it as “the queen of all dates,” and prize its balance of starchy and sweet tastes. Many of those you buy packaged at the supermarket, from, say, Dole, are probably deglet noor, though they are rarely labeled by variety. Instead, you’re likely to find an incomplete ID of this sort: “California Whole Pitted Dates.”

Sukkari: These fresh dates are gumball-sized and the color of lightly caramelized sugar. They taste like caramel candy, with a pillowy soft texture punctuated by small, crunchy sugar crystals. Keep refrigerated.

Barhi: One of the smaller, more fragile kinds of dates, with thin dark brown skin that wrinkles and cracks open to reveal creamy flesh within. The flavor is like butterscotch and honey, balanced with a slight, persimmon-like astringency.

Ajwa: These medium dates are round and very dark brown or black. They are soft and chewy, with some prune flavor and hints of cinnamon. Also called the “holy date,” ajwa dates were promoted by the Prophet Mohammed himself as a way to protect against poison and magic.

Braised Chicken Thighs with Carrot Juice and Dates Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Braised Chicken Thighs with Carrot Juice and Dates

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This Moroccan-esque recipe is very lightly adapted from Fine Cooking magazine. The chicken goes well with couscous.

Serves 4 to 6

6-8 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 cups sliced onions
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon cumin
1 cinnamon stick
1¼ cups carrot juice
¾ cup chicken broth
10-12 pitted medjool dates, halved
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Chopped cilantro, to garnish

Season the chicken generously with salt and pepper. In a large saute pan with a lid or a Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Arrange the chicken skin-side down and cook until deeply browned, 5 to 10 minutes. Flip the chicken and brown on the second side. Transfer the chicken to a plate.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Discard all but 1 tablespoon fat in the saute pan or Dutch oven. Add the sliced onions to the fat and saute until the onions start to soften and color, about 5 minutes. Add the spices and saute 1 minute until they are fragrant.

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Add the carrot juice and chicken broth to the pan and bring to a boil. Cook for a few minutes, scraping up the fond on the bottom. Return the chicken and any juices to the pan. Cover, transfer to the oven and braise for 20 minutes. Add the dates. Cover and bake another 20 minutes or so until the chicken is done (about 170 degrees on an instant read thermometer).

Remove the chicken and dates from the pot. Boil the liquid for a few minutes to reduce it slightly. Stir in the lemon juice and taste the sauce for seasoning. Return the chicken and any juices to the pot. Sprinkle with cilantro and serve.

Dairy-Free Banana, Peanut Butter and Date ‘Ice Cream’

This naturally sweetened frozen treat comes together easily with just four ingredients. The pureed bananas and peanut butter provide the same creamy texture as regular ice cream. Medjool dates work well in this recipe because they’re not overly sweet, but any variety you have on hand will work.

Yield: about 1 quart

4 medium bananas, finely chopped (about 1 lb. bananas)
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
1 cup finely chopped pitted dates, such as medjool
Honey, for drizzling

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Arrange chopped bananas in a single layer on a small sheet pan or large plate. Place bananas in freezer 1 hour or until firm. Remove from freezer, let stand at room temperature 3 minutes.

Add the bananas to the bowl of a food processor. Process until almost smooth, stopping as needed to scrape down the sides of the bowl.

Add the peanut butter and dates to the bananas. Process until fully blended.

Place the banana mixture in an airtight container and set in the freezer 1 hour or until well set. To serve, scoop 1 cup ice cream into each of 4 small bowls. Drizzle each portion with honey, if desired.

Mrs. Lea’s Date-Nut Bread Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Mrs. Lea’s Date-Nut Bread

Mrs. Lea was a beloved friend of Food Editor Peggy Grodinsky’s family for decades. Grodinsky went to school – from kindergarten through high school – with Lea’s son David and they are still close. The lovely Mrs. Lea died at least a decade ago, but this classic quick bread brings her back in a small way. The method of dissolving the baking soda seems quite old, so Grodinsky guesses the recipe is, too, and similar date-nut breads were common – the slices were often spread with cream cheese – from around the 1920s to 1950s.

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1 cup chopped, pitted dates
¾ cup dark raisins
¾ cup golden raisins
1 teaspoon baking soda
¾ cup boiling water
½ cup butter, softened
¾ cup sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
Generous ¼ teaspoon salt
¾ cup toasted walnuts
¼ cup brandy

Butter a 9-by-5 inch (or slightly smaller) loaf pan, line the bottom with parchment paper and grease and flour the parchment; this step is important, as the loaf is sticky. Set aside. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Combine the dried fruits in a small bowl. Dissolve the baking soda in the boiling water and pour over the dried fruits. Set aside.

Cream the butter and the sugar in a mixer until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg and vanilla until the mixture is combined. Whisk together the flour and the salt, then add to the mixer, taking care not to overmix. Add the reserved dried fruits to the batter with their liquid, also the walnuts and the brandy. Stir just to combine.

Scrape the batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake about 1 hour until done. Let the loaf entirely cool before slicing.

Food Editor Peggy Grodinsky contributed to this story.

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