I taste the Kimia dates first — they are plump, black, and melt-in-the mouth. The brown Tunisian dates follow, tasting just like honey. Then come the seedless dates, known for their fibrous texture and sweet taste. It is Ramadan and I am at Range Gounder Street at Town Hall, opposite the vella mandi to shop for dates.
'There are more than 320 varieties of dates, of which 14 are popular here,' says S. Nattaraman, proprietor of Sun Trading and Company. He reels off exotic names such as Medjool, Afwa, Mabroom, Safawi, Barari…and says: 'They are imported from the Arab countries to important centres in India. We get them from places in Gujarat, Mumbai, Chennai, and Thoothukudi and sometimes from Calicut.'
The sale of dates peaks during the month of Ramadan when Muslims observe dawn-to-dusk fast for 30 days. At dusk, they break fast with dates and water, just as The Prophet himself had done. There are dates from Muscat, Saudi, Iran and Iraq that differ in colour, taste and quality. 'Iranian dates are soft and last for 15 days while the Saudi dates stay fresh longer. Medjool dates are bigger in size and cost Rs. 1000 a kilo. There are several varieties of Tunisian dates too that cost Rs. 120 to Rs. 150 per kilo,' says Nattaraman. 'Earlier, black dates sold less. We sold about 500 kilos of yellow dates. Now, in 10 days we sell about 20 tonnes of imported dates to customers across Coimbatore, Tirupur, Erode, Sathyamangalam, and Palani. Customers prefer them for quality. Barhi dates are locally available and cultivated in Dharmapuri, Udumalpet, Dindigul and Palani. But, when they ripen they spoil.'
The 30-year-old T.R. Venkatachalam Chetty Traders, one of the oldest dry fruits shops on Range Gowder Street, has customers from as far as Guwahati and Kanyakumari. 'They buy in half-kilo, one-kilo or five-kilo packs. Muslims from Ukkadam and Koundampalayam, the Bohra Muslims from Peelamedu, and the mosques in Karumbukadai buy from us. Some of my customers have tasted the imported varieties during Haj and they want the same taste and quality. Sale of cinnamon, cloves, jeera, pepper and spices also increase as they use them for the traditional kanji and other preparations,' says N. Sreenivasan who works at the shop.
Sree Maya and Sons sells special five-kilo packs to meet the demand. 'Prices increase before the onset of Ramadan. We don’t stock them as they go bad. Our purchase and sale is on a daily basis. Customers often buy the big packets as they distribute a pair of dates to everyone while breaking the fast at sunset,' explains S.N. Mathan of Maya stores.
K.L. Mani of Mani Traders, dealers in dry fruits and spices, says, 'Tunisian Barari, Kimia, Arabian…comes from Arabian countries to Chennai. We sell them quickly as the quality suffers if kept longer.' Dates pack many health benefits. They provide energy, especially while fasting. The fibre and iron content improves haemoglobin count.