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