The factory of Doyen Foods, a confectionery that specialises in Mediterranean sweets, is nestled in a building inside Bussa Industrial Estate at Prabhadevi. Past a line of lorries and construction workers, we reach the second floor. A signboard at the door reads: ‘Please keep your footwear outside’.
Mumbai-based couple Haresh Bathija and Kiran Dhameja at Doyen Confections, at Prabhadevi. Pics/Sayyed Sameer Abedi
We oblige and walk into a squeaky-clean room to find a variety of dates, from the soft Medjoul, Khadrawy to the semi-dry Deglet Noor and Zahidi to the chewy Mabroom and Ajwa. A platter of ‘filled’ dates, stuffed with Spanish orange and lemon peels, caramel butterscotch nuts, cashew, pistachio, pecans, hazel and pine nuts sit on a table. In a corner, is a glass jar filled with Ma’amoul (flattened Arabic cookies filled with dates) and bazarek (sesame pistachio or Damascus cookies). Welcome to the world of exotic dates. For the last nine months, this space, founded by Mumbai-based couple Haresh Bathija and Kiran Dhameja, has been churning out more than 80 different gourmet date confections using 15 varieties imported from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Palestine, Oman, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Algeria and Tunasia.
Honey-dipped dates with sesame
"For years, dates have been stuck in a rut in India. They are mostly consumed on special occasions like Ramzan, to break the fast. It’s the most versatile fruit with a plethora of textures and flavours," says Dhameja, a former advertising professional, who was inspired to set up shop after she visited the Gulf food festival in Dubai.
How it is done
The dates are ordered three times a year, and stored in cold storage at 3º C. "We then wash and de-seed them. We also check for infestations, which happen if the dates are moist. The seeds are stored separately in a dry air-bag," says Dhamejia. If stored at the right temperature, dates remain fresh for two years. The dates are preservative-free and vegetarian.
Variety to try
We sample cream-filled dates stuffed with alphonso mango puree. Biting through the paper-thin skin of a Medjoul to the juicy sweetness of the flesh beneath, it’s ironic that the wonders of date are still unknown to the Indian foodies. "Whatever the filling, the original taste of the fruit does not get diluted," says Bathija. We then sample the chocolate dates with roasted almonds and Spanish orange peel stuffing, covered with a thick layer of dark chocolate. The choco dates are for those with a sweet tooth. From the recipes they have created, the fresh cream dates are meant for immediate consumption or can last up to three days under refrigeration. The rest have a shelf life of six months.
The model, we are told, is based on the Arabic-style of desserts, and are similar to Bateel dates of Dubai, a popular gifting item in the country. "We had to travel to UAE several times to understand the scope of date confectioneries," he says. There, he says, dates form a part of salads too — herbs and salad leaves topped with pine nuts and dried fruit.
However, not all recipes have been inspired by the Middle East. The feta cheese filling and the dates with chipotle are Dhameja’s inventions. Far from the sweetness that was intrinsic to the varieties till now, this one has a salty and tangy taste and blends with the taste of jumbo Mejdoul dates, which are a gooey variety. "I read up material online during six months of research, and sampled over 50 different varieties of date confectioneries to get a sense of their potential," says Dhamejia.
Bathija feels the reason why date confectionery hasn’t picked up in India is due to its storage challenge. "Dates are sensitive. They have to be stored in cold storage away from spices. If there’s a packet of cinnamon or cloves nearby, they absorb those flavours," he says. The myth that dates generate heat in the body is well, just a myth harboured by Indians.
"It is consumed throughout the year in the Middle East, even when temperatures rise about 40º Celsius," he says, adding that dates are high in vitamins A, B6, folic acid, potassium, magnesium, iron and natural sodium. Also, the seeds help build immunity in cattle. "We plan to supply the seed dates to companies that would use it to create cattle nutrients. No part of a date can ever go waste."