Worldwide, more than 500 exist and are grown in countries such as Namibia, Egypt, Dubai, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

As the old adage goes, whoever gives a date to one who is fasting will have a reward like his, without detracting from that person’s blessings.

So revered is the fruit, that it is said to have been Prophet Muhammad’s preferential breakfast before the day of fasting began and as a snack before the evening prayer during the holy month of Ramadaan.

The consumption of dates during this time, when Muslims abstain from food and drink in the day, has become a long-standing tradition among Muslims across the world.

They are surely on to something, says dietitian Kath Megaw.

“A study done in 2003 showed the glycaemic control (speed of glucose released into bloodstream) of a fresh date eaten on its own is between 35.5 and 47.2. This places dates among low GI foods and comparable with or lower than other foods.”

Dates are a slow energy-releasing food that offers sustenance – which is perhaps why it is popular with sportsmen and women.

At Amina’s Wonder Spice and Wonder Dates in Sea Cow Lake, Durban, which sells more than 320 tons of dates annually, you can find more than 30 varieties.

Worldwide, more than 500 exist and are grown in countries such as Namibia, Egypt, Dubai, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

You can buy them fresh or dry, with or without seed, with almonds, coconut or covered in chocolate.

Of course there is lovely gifting as well, in keeping with the old tradition and belief.

Buckets stationed down their store aisles make complete sense when you learn how similar they look but how different they taste.

If something tickles your tastebuds be sure to put a punnet in your trolley because I’ve learnt going back to find that particular one can prove difficult. Not to mention that there is only so much sweetness your palette can take.

Abdulgani Rahman, managing director at Amina’s, who visits date farms across the world regularly, marvels at the date.

“Dates don’t all necessarily mature at the same time. To see a date transform from a flower to apple-like fruit and then to the date we know is remarkable.

“Taste also varies drastically as the moisture content of a date weans.

“Dates are an important traditional crop in Iraq, Arabia, and North Africa, mentioned more than 50 times in the Bible and 20 times in the Qur’an.

“In Islamic culture, it is traditionally the food consumed before the sun rises and after the sun has set during Ramadaan. They are also cultivated in California and Mexico.”

“Dates may well be a miracle fruit. Dates are said to prevent abdominal cancer.”

“Eating dates is said to ease the pain of childbirth, help produce milk for nursing mothers and also prevent blood loss after childbirth.

“Dates are rich in calcium and give you strong bones. They also maintain good vision and purge the liver of toxins.”

“Not all dates are sweet,” says Mira Harie, brand manager at The Spice Emporium in Durban, another big retailer of the fruit.

“Our best selling date is Khodari, which comes from Saudi Arabia. It’s an all-time favourite that is dark, soft, semi-dry and full of flavour. Maktoumi is also popular as a low-sugar date.

“It is firm with a toffee flavour.

“At our in-store restaurant, The Snack Bar, dates play a vital role as a main ingredient in the date chutney.

“The dates add a natural sweetness which tempers the sour tanginess of the tamarind in the chutney which is an essential component in our chaats (Indian street food) like Pani Puri, Sev Puri, Vada Pav and Bombay Sandwiches.”

Celebrity Chef for Zira, Nazira Moosa, says dates or Kajoor in Arabic can easily be bought at local spice stores and halaal butchers.

“The Medjool is the Cadillac of dates. It is the most common, is sweet, moist and firm-textured. Other types of dates are Barni or Ajwah that have valuable medicinal purposes.

“Khudry, Safawy and Sufry are also very popular variations. Dates are sometimes basted in a tad of butter or ghee and sprinkled with coconut, ground almonds or ground pistachios.”

“To be completely honest, they are just as good as they appear in nature.”

And according to Health and Wellness Coach, Shireen Khan, they are just as nutritious. “They are loaded with vitamins. Dates contain copper, magnesium, manganese, vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), niacin, pantothenic acid, and riboflavin which provide unique preventive and healing functions.

“B-vitamins contained in dates, such as the carotenes lutein and zeaxanthin, absorb into the retina to maintain optimal light-filtering functions and protect against macular degeneration.

“They contain vitamin A, also great for eyes as well as skin and vitamin K, a blood coagulant that also helps metabolise the bones.

“The iron content, a component of haemoglobin in red blood cells, determines the balance of oxygen in the blood.

“Potassium, an electrolyte, helps control your heart rate and blood pressure.

“Of course, the dietary fibre in dates helps to move waste smoothly through your colon and helps prevent LDL (bad) cholesterol which by relieving constipation and supporting regular bowel movements may even aid weight loss.”

Megaw says, “Anything eaten in excess will potentially lead to weight gain. To avoid this, manage portions and avoid overeating.

“One large, fresh date will count as a fruit portion and can be eaten daily, preferably with protein in the form of cheese or yoghurt or even an animal protein dish.”