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Fig Jam: How the Fig Tree Traveled in the Arab Diaspora

posted on: Nov 10, 2021

Fig Jam: How the Fig Tree Traveled in the Arab Diaspora

By: Blanche Shaheen / Arab America Contributing Writer

If there was a tree that could talk about the ancient and rich history of the Middle East, it would be the fig tree. Archeologists have discovered remains of fig trees in cultivation in the Jordan valley tracing all the way back to 4000 BC. The ancient Egyptians called the fig “Tun” which was most likely the precursor to the Arabic word for figs, which today is the word “teen.” 

Many historians claim that the Middle East is the origin of Ficus Carica or the common fig. The distinct varieties of figs in the Middle East were given descriptive names based on their shape, color, or flavor. For example, the Badi fig from Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan come from the word “Abyad” which means white. Ira Condit, who is a renowned fig breeder and researcher, conjectured that Syria and Anatolia were the original and natural habitats of the fig tree. From there, middle eastern travelers spread the fig tree to North Africa, South and Central America, Spain, and California, where 98% of the figs are grown in the United States.

In ancient times people carried strings of dried figs packed together like loaves of bread on long arduous journeys across the desert. The figs provided them with a nutritious high carbohydrate food source in a region where food was scarce.  For such a small fruit, figs both fresh and dried are rich in phytonutrients, antioxidants, as well as vitamins and minerals like calcium and potassium.

Today it is quite common for Arab families in the diaspora to gift each other with fig tree saplings, continuing the long-standing family tradition of eating and preserving figs. This is particularly common in California, where 98% of the nation’s figs are grown. These saplings grow into gigantic trees, almost becoming cherished members of the family. When entertaining, Arabs proudly display bowls of sweet fruit alongside dishes of pistachios, almonds, and cashews for their guests. Whatever figs that don’t get eaten make their way into sweet preserves, enjoyed at breakfast or as an evening snack with tart labneh cheese on bread. 

If you can access fresh figs this time of year, try making these preserves with robust spices like cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and allspice for a late fall and winter treat. While this jam tastes great plain, it can also enhance savory dishes like tagine or braised meat to add a sweet flavor. 

To see the technique on how to make this fig jam with fall spices, click on the video below: 

FIG JAM WITH FALL SPICES

(Feel free to double or triple the recipe if you like a large quantity) 

  • 1 pound . fresh figs, quartered
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • ½ tsp cinnamon
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • 1/4 tsp allspice
  • ¼ tsp cardamom
  • 1 tsp vanilla

Instructions

  1. Combine all the ingredients in a large pot, and bring to a boil over medium high heat.
  2. Turn the heat down to a simmer, stirring occasionally and cook uncovered for 30 minutes or until the liquid has been reduced, fruit is soft, and jam is thick. If it is too dry add more water, preferably boiling water. 
  3. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Pour into sterilized jars. This jam lasts up to 6 weeks in the refrigerator. 

Blanche Shaheen is the author of the cookbook called “Feast In the Middle East, a Journey of Family and Cuisine”  which you can order here: https://secure.mybookorders.com/mbo_index.php?isbn=9781545675113   She is also a journalist, and host of the popular cooking show called Feast in the Middle East. She specializes in the Arab cuisine of the Levant and beyond.  You can check out her cooking video tutorials at https://www.youtube.com/user/blanchetv    Her recipes can also be found at https://feastinthemiddleeast.wordpress.com/

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