TsukuBlog

A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

Tsukuba ( and much of the rest of Japan)- a Paradise for Fresh Fig Lovers- and a recipe for stewed figs and fig juice!

This roadside fig stand in Tsukuba`s Kurakake neighborhood sell freshly picked figs from mid-August through mid-November. Get there early- they close up each day as soon as they re sold out

At this roadside stand in Tsukuba`s Kurakake neighborhood  freshly picked figs are sold from mid-August through mid-November. Get there early- they close up each day as soon as they re sold out. These friendly local farmers have been growing MASUI-DOPHINE figs ( a variety developed in Hiroshima Prefecture in 1906) for 15 years. They open at about 9:30 AM.

The farmers at the roadside stall only pick the ripest figs each morning- if you don`t get there early they`ll be sold out!

The farmers at the roadside stall only pick the ripest figs each morning – if you don`t get there early they`ll be sold out!

A fig

A fig on the tree. Though imported dried figs have become more readily available in Japan in recent years, FRESH figs are available in abundance in Tsukuba and much of the rest of the Kanto Region from September through early November.

A roadside fig tree in Onozaki, Tsukuba (October 3, 2020)

By Avi Landau

I had occasionally eaten them dried, but until coming to Tsukuba I had never eaten- or even seen, a fresh fig.  It isn`t too hard to FIGure out why. If you read up a bit on this fruit, possibly the first ever plant to have been cultivated by man (before grapes, wheat or rye!) – you learn that fresh figs have a very short shelf-life. In other words, they can`t be kept for very long in shops. They are also difficult to transport without bruising and other damage.

FIresh figs on sale in Tsukuba

Fresh figs on sale in Tsukuba. The Chinese characters used to write the word fig (ICHIJIKU) are 無花果which means: FRUIT WITH NO FLOWER – since the ancient Chinese did not realize that this plant’s flowers, scores of them, are found INSIDE the part that we eat

In other words, fresh figs are commonly available only in season- and in areas where they grow in abundance- like Ibaraki and Chiba Prefectures in Japan.  For lovers of these fruit in their fresh form (and soon after my first taste I joined their ranks!) – Tsukuba is a veritable paradise. They are not only grown by local farmers and vegetable gardeners but are often grown in peoples` front yards.

From September through early November you can find them in overflowing abundance at green-grocers, supermarkets and even at temporary road-side stalls.

A fig orchard in Kurakake, Tsukuba. While Ibaraki is officially the number 19 prefecture in Japan in terms of fig sales (Aichi is number one) figs are commonly grown at home- so Ibarakians don`t have to buy them ! The variety grown here is the MASUI-DOPHIN which comproses 80 percent of commercially grown figs in Japan

A fig orchard in Kurakake, Tsukuba. While Ibaraki is officially the number 19 prefecture in Japan in terms of fig sales (Aichi is number one) figs are commonly grown at home- so Ibarakians don`t have to buy them ! The variety grown here is the MASUI-DOPHINE which comprises 80 percent of commercially grown figs in Japan

In keeping with the Japanese emphasis on seasonality in eating,  fresh raw figs are enjoyed by many at least once every autumn. Unlike the way they are in their dried form- rough, overly-chewy, very sweet, and a bit unsightly- when fresh, they are softly textured, delicately- even sublimely flavored, and beautiful to look at. When in season in Japan, they are also featured in a wide variety of desserts – in yoghurt – or stewed in wine (my second favorite way of eating them figs- my number one is fresh, right off the tree).

What is left over at the end of the season from one`s personal stash of fresh figs can be made into jam.

Fresh figs on yoghurt

Fresh figs on yoghurt at a supermarket in Tsukuba

SOME INTERESTING  FIG FACTS

Depicted in ancient Egyptian tomb-paintings, mentioned in the bible, a common motif in Greek and Roman mythology, the fig is one of the most culturally significant plants in human history and it is believed to be one of the oldest- perhaps THE oldest cultivated crop, having first been systemically grown in the Middle-East. It spread first to Greece, Italy and Persia by the 9th century BC. It took a thousand years to make its way from there to the Iberian Peninsula in the west and China in the east ( by sometime in the 9th century AD).

It was not until the17th century, however, that figs were introduced to Japan – via China and through the port of Nagasaki.

Commercial production of figs did not begin on a large scale here, though, until the early 20th century with the introduction of varieties from the United States.

The wasp which pollinate the figs eenters through this hole

The wasps which pollinate these figs enter through this hole

In October 2020 I stopped for a few seconds by this roadside fig tree and as I was getting ready to take pictures a wasp (one of those mentioned just above) appeared in the scene!

The Japanese name for figs – ICHIJIKU, comes from China* – and the same characters that the Chinese use are used to write its name in Japanese 無花果: which means NO FLOWER FRUIT. This is evidence of a misunderstanding concerning fig trees – one that anyone who observed them through the years would make- that it has no flowers. The fact is, though, that fig trees have MANY tiny flowers. It is just that they are found INSIDE the fruit that we eat.

Fig trees are pollinated by wasps. To do their work, they enter the figs through a convenient orifice, called an osteole.

It is also curious that while with most other fruit trees, it takes many leaves to produce one fruit, sometime 30-40 leaves for each (apple, pear, orange, etc.), the fig tree produces one fruit per leaf (though the leaves are quite large- large enough to cover up your gentlest areas!).

One fruit for one leaf!

Please do a little searching on your own- the cultural, historical and nutritional significance of the fig is a vast subject.

Here I would like to move on to more pressing matters………..

The figs flower - I should rather say flowers, are on the inside of what we think of as the fruit- and it is actually the flowers that we eat!

The fig`s flower – I should rather say FLOWERS, are on the inside of what we think of as the fruit- and it is actually the flowers that we eat!

Recipe for Stewed Figs

Of course, the true fig-lover eats them fresh and plain- preferably right off the tree. But here is another way of enjoying them- and experiencing the season at the same time: stewing them in red wine with lemon and sugar !

When still hot, they are perfect for autumn nights, which grow longer and cooler with each passing day.

Try it once, and like me, you might get into the habit of fixin’ yourself some every night!

 

Figs

I use five figs to make this dish. They are packed with dietary fiber ( said to be good for maintaining digestive tract health and preventing constipation) and minerals: potassium, iron, calcium and magnesium… which are supposedly good for lowering blood pressure and preventing osteoporosis.

Ingredients:

Figs – I usually use five

One lemon – of which I use half

Red wine – I use the cheap bottles available at convenience stores (about 500 Yen)

Cooking sugar – in Japanese this is called SAN ON TOH (三温糖)- at least 100 grams

Ingredients

The ingredients are simple and few- figs, red wine, a lemon and Japanese cooking sugar

 

I peeled the figs

Peeled figs

Procedure:

Peel the figs – try to keep the stems on – it makes for better LOOKING results – though you don`t have to worry if they come off.

After having scrubbed the lemon, cut it in half and then slice one of the halves into thin slices with the skin intact.

Put wine into pot- heat on low flame- and dissolve sugar in it

Add figs and lemons

Simmer for 15 minutes

Let cool

The figs simmering in red wine and sugar with lemon slices

The figs simmering in red wine and sugar with lemon slices

 

La piece de resistance!

La piece de resistance! October 2014 at my house in Tsukuba

FIG SMOOTHY

If you`ve got plenty of figs at hand you might also want to try this recipe:

Put 2 peeled figs (stems removed) in a blender with:

Chopped peppermint, a little plain yoghurt, some a squeeze of lemon, and a teaspoon of honey

 

Fresh figs in yoghurt at the Prechef Supermarket`s yoghurt counter

Fresh figs in yoghurt at the Prechef Supermarket`s yoghurt counter

 

Fig trees in Sasagi, Tsukuba

Fig trees in Sasagi, Tsukuba

 

Figs ready for the picking by the side of the road in Tsukuba

Figs ready for the picking by the side of the road in Tsukuba

  • There are two theories regarding the etymology of the name ICHIJIKU (figs), which is how the Japanese pronounce the Chinese characters 無花果. One is that it comes from the notion of ICHI JUKU (一熟) which means “one fruit matures every day”. Another is that the pronunciation arrived in Japan from Persia (where figs were ANJIR) and India (where they were INJIR) and then China, where the  ANJIR AND INJIR were pronounced YENJAY and the suffix  KUO (fruit) was added on. The Japanese heard (according to this theory) the Chinese YENJAYKUO as ICHIJIKU.


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