It's fresh date season once again, and I happily plopped a large yellow bunch into my basket the other day. A French lady at the market asked me what they were, and I explained they were fresh dates (balah), that they were dates that are picked early before they've ripened into the wrinkly brown state we're familiar with.
Fresh dates are also a reminder that Ramadan is emminent. Although Islam follows a lunar calendar (meaning seasonal foods don't associate with holidays), dates are an important symbol of breaking the Ramadan fast. During the holiday stores stock up on the most lush juicy dates, as well as dates in various stages of ripeness, date pastes and date molasses. When the fast is broken at sunset, the loudspeakers boom out from the mosques with the call to prayer and a steaming feast is set out on the table before a hungry family gathered together. Traditionally, dates are passed around the table first, as a gentle way of breaking the daily fast. This is usually followed by lentil soup, and then the rest of the meal which will contain a variety of dishes and special juices like a popular tamarind drink. Even though one may be quite hungry after fasting all day, the meal goes at a slow pace, and most people aim to eat modest portions.
Just-picked dates hanging in Palmyra, Syria.
As a foreigner and non-Muslim, I have often found myself anticipating Ramadan with a certain amount of foreboding. Like any holiday, it can also be a hectic time, and the traffic gets absolutely crazy as people rush to get home to break the fast, and hungry people mob the markets to buy last minute groceries. Just try shopping at four o'clock with a market full of people who haven't eaten all day and are eyeing the special pastries in the display windows, let me tell you. There's the added issue that at the office, any time we'd try to schedule meetings or conferences, it was always that Ramadan was coming or happening or ending, and it seemed like we'd lose two months of work to the holidays.
However, having experienced Ramadan in a Muslim country (it's different in places where the population is more mixed, like Beirut or parts of Cairo), I can tell you it's a truly amazing experience. When everyone is fasting together, there is an amazing sense of community, of shared experience, and it is also a time for reflection, family togetherness, and charity (alms-giving is an important part of Ramadan).
I was thinking about all these things when I bought my fresh dates the other day, even though the holiday had not yet begun. Fresh dates are tart and crunchy and quite similar to apples. In a culinary sense, they don't have much to offer, they make a nice snack on their own. One afternoon, I decided to slice them up and use them in a salad, along with some fresh walnuts I got at a farm recently and some crumbly cheese. This is one of the best salads I've had in a long time, it's one of those salads you have for lunch and then come home and say to your partner/boyfriend/spouse, I had the best lunch today! And then you make it every day for the rest of the week, which is exactly what I did.
If you spy fresh dates at your local market, I urge you to try this salad, or if not you could always substitute some slivers of tart apple. I hope to do some more posts about Ramadan as the holy month gets under way, and if you're observing Ramadan (or any other holiday), I wish you all a happy and joyous year to come.
Fresh Date, Walnut, and Cheese Salad
8-10 fresh dates (the yellow crunchy kind) or substitute a small Granny Smith apple
1/2 cup walnuts
1/2 cup crumbly cheese- shanklish, goat cheese, or feta
6 cups mixed greens
olive oil, salt
1. Place the greens in a serving bowl and drizzle the olive oil over top and sprinkly with salt. Toss to coat.
2. Pit the dates and slice. Lightly toast the walnuts. Place the dates, walnuts, and cheese over the greens. Serve.