SAMAH BESHIR isn’t sure when she first had date pancakes. For as long as she can remember, the gorgeously deep-gold rounds of gorrasat balah (in Arabic, قراصة بلح) have been part of her life. She was born and raised in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, and the recipe goes back to her grandmother and beyond in northern Sudan, where date pancakes found a place in celebrations and before special guests. Per Sudanese tradition, as the eldest sibling, her father hosted the big family gatherings — there, everybody vied to be first in the date-pancake line, receiving them hot with butter and honey right from Beshir’s grandmother’s hands. The cakes were also the fought-over dessert at the customary Friday family brunch. Eventually, Beshir’s mom took over pancake production, with Beshir helping by her side.
After Beshir came to the United States seven years ago, she had a family of her own to squabble over the date pancakes she made. In Sudan, she worked as a project planner at a telecommunications company; here, she cast about for an entrepreneurial undertaking to pursue while taking care of her three young sons. She tinkered with running different businesses out of her and husband Mubarak Elamin’s Bellevue home, but none of them worked out, she says on the phone, laughing. Then she started thinking about how people here love pancakes, and how when she fed her date ones to visitors who had never tried them, the result was effusive praise along with later requests for more.
But even after Beshir hit upon the idea to make date pancakes easy for American consumption — a contribution to her new home that would bring, she hoped, more cultural understanding of Sudan along with some excellent eating — it took her three years to get the recipe right. Typically, boiled dates go into the batter, along with the water in which they’re boiled. Her aha moment: to use dried dates, in the form of date sugar, instead. “It took me a long time to think of that!” she says. She tried out her new mix on her family first. “Then I asked my friends to test it,” she says, laughing. “And then it worked!”
Pancakes made with her mix come out a bit differently than the traditional ones, Beshir notes — the batter is thicker. How do they compare to the often-oversized pancakes usually muffling plates in the United States? The addition of dates just “makes it, for me, more delicious!” she says, laughing again. And while people might be partial to the pancakes they grew up with, be they buttermilk or bánh xèo, her Afro Dates Pancakes have a subtle sweetness and rich substance to them that’s easy to immediately, seriously love. The soft, lush texture approaches but then stops short of gumminess in the best way, and you’d probably never put your finger on the presence of dates, just notice an ineffably great taste.
Beshir’s husband likes them topped with fresh fruit and powdered sugar. She likes honey. Honey with a squeeze of lime is superb, as is cinnamon-sugar — both, for at least this palate, are better with a lot of butter. Think of anything that might go with an understated flavor of dates: banana and cardamom; marmalade; maybe a pancake sandwich of goat cheese, prosciutto and fig jam. Beshir fully approves of customizing your Afro Dates Pancakes any way you like. Some traditionalists clamored for more date flavor, so she started including a packet of chopped dates with the mix. Some people drop raisins down onto the cooking cakes. One happy eater on the Afro Dates Pancakes Facebook page recommends date syrup and walnuts for topping, elaborating, “Your pancakes / fabulous / mind-blowing / delicious / [three kinds of happy-face emojis] / Yahya & Yasmin.” Another endorses the addition of pieces of date, then “topped with ghee and powdered sugar, the way we used to eat it back home … Highly recommended [heart emoji] … I hope more Sudanese come forward and market our delicious cuisine.” One of Beshir’s friends makes waffles with the batter; another developed a recipe for quick Afro Dates Pancakes-mix dinner rolls.
Speaking from experience, Beshir says that even extremely picky kids enjoy Afro Dates Pancakes, especially with Nutella on top or gummy bears cooked into them. She claims that such augmentation (maybe not necessarily for kids only, she agrees, laughing) is offset by the overall healthiness of her date pancakes — simple ingredients, with dates as a sweetener rather than the added sugar found in some pancake mixes. She also notes that, historically in northern Sudan, women ate date pancakes after childbirth because dates are high in iron. A stack of pancakes also made good food to take traveling, first on camelback, and later for journeys by bus or train, she says.
Beshir started selling her Afro Dates Pancakes mix in December, mostly to neighbors and friends. Word of happy mouth has already spread, with orders coming in from California to Washington, D.C. Her dining-room table acts as dispatch headquarters, crowded with packages marked with Afro Dates’ perfect logo. It seems that even during a pandemic, pancakes can bring people together, at least in spirit. And, as a Sudanese American, Beshir says she’s so happy to share a bit more of the vast cultures of Africa, which are less than bountifully represented here. She would love to see the tradition of a Friday family brunch embraced by everyone, with or without date pancakes for dessert.
Afro Dates Pancakes mix is available online at afrodp.com, as well as at these local markets: Byblos Mediterranean Halal Arabi in Lynnwood, Lynnwood Mediterranean Food Grocery & Deli, International Food Bazaar in Bellevue, and ZamZam International Market in Tacoma.