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Date nights

Syed Usman Shah of Date Sultan on ethical sourcing, inventive fillings and the tradition of eating dates during Ramadan


Words: Shahnaz Ahsan

“Dates are tasty,” says Syed Usman Shah, founder of Date Sultan. “But when they’re ethically sourced, they’re even tastier.”

Date Sultan is a social enterprise that imports premium dates from the Middle East. As well as supplying its customers with treats such as salted caramel-stuffed medjool dates, the company’s mission is to tackle modern slavery – a pervasive practice throughout much of the region’s agricultural sector. And Date Sultan’s peak sales season is just around the corner.

“For us, as Muslims, there is no Ramadan without dates,” he says, referring to the holy month observed by 1.8 billion Muslims across the globe, who fast from sunrise to sunset, avoiding any food or drink during daylight hours. Dates are among the foods that are traditionally eaten to break the fast each evening.

Ethically sourced dates for sale at the Date Sultan stall

Born in Pakistan, Usman was just one month old when his parents moved the family to the UK. Now based in Newham, east London, Usman credits his parents with instilling a sense of community responsibility in him. Growing up, he witnessed them gifting dates to friends, family and neighbours during Ramadan – a common practice among Muslims.

When he travelled to different parts of the Middle East as a young adult, Usman was disturbed by the treatment of migrant workers – usually from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh – and their dire working conditions on date plantations. Resolving to find a fairer way of doing things, Usman set up Date Sultan and made ethical trade the cornerstone of his business. Today, the company has direct contracts with farmers in Egypt, Jordan, Palestine and Saudi Arabia, which means that Usman and his team can ensure fair wages are paid throughout the supply chain, regularly conducting audits and inspections without relying on any third parties.

While the roots of Usman’s business model are firmly embedded in his traditional upbringing, Date Sultan’s success was catapulted by the distinctly modern phenomenon of social media. One video Usman posted on TikTok garnered 500,000 views overnight. The next day, Usman says, “we didn’t have enough dates on hand to meet the orders”. The solution was to crowdfund. After raising £20,000 through community donations from over 100 people, Usman imported a 40-foot container filled with dates. The rest is history.

Syed Usman Shah of Date Sultan

Usman’s love of experimentation has been a cornerstone of his company’s success. He began by pitting and stuffing medjool dates with almonds and pistachios and toying with new fillings. One evening during Ramadan, while preparing for iftar – the meal to break the fast – Usman stuffed some medjool dates with salted caramel. From his guests’ reactions, Usman knew he was onto a winner. Today, Date Sultan offers a wide range of innovative fillings, such as candied ginger and Lotus Biscoffy, as well as variety packs and single-origin date selections.

Of the many date varieties in existence, Usman’s own favourite – “a must for Ramadan” – is the grandly titled king jumbo ajwa: “It is said to be the variety most enjoyed by the Prophet Muhammad – and I can see why. It’s moreish and has natural flavour tones of caramel.” What makes it even more special is that it only grows in the city of Madinah, Saudi Arabia, known as “the city of the Prophet”.

Date Sultan offers a detailed rating system for the varieties on offer at the stall, scoring each one out of five on qualities such as sweetness and chewiness and offering detailed tasting notes. All this helps customers find the right date for the right job. For example, Usman’s favourite date-based recipe is sticky toffee pudding. “But – and it’s a BIG but – so many people make them with medjool dates,” he sighs. “Big mistake. It should be made with the mabroom date which literally tastes like toffee, but without any added sugar or preservatives.”

During Ramadan, which this year is expected to start around 10th March, one tradition involves consuming three dates and a glass of milk as a pre-dawn meal, setting up the body for a long day of fasting. Usman also recommends that ambara amber dates – a variety he says is a “nutritional powerhouse” – be soaked in a glass of water overnight and the liquid consumed the following morning as ‘an all-natural energy drink’.

While Ramadan is one of the busiest times for date sales, Usman believes that the fruit should be enjoyed all year around. According to an Islamic proverb, “a house with dates shall never go empty”. He also recalls a blessing made by one of the neighbours he gifted dates to as a child at his father’s behest. “May it rain dates from your hand,” the man told a young Usman. Many years of dedication and hard work later, it appears that his blessing was heard.