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Figs - First Eaten in the `Garden of Eden'

posted on: Feb 7, 2018

By Habeeb Sallloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

One of mankind’s most ancient foods, the fig is the second fruit mentioned in the Bible.  It dates back to the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve made garments from its leaves to hide their nakedness and restore their dignity.  One of the most delicious and wholesome fruits in existence, the fig is not only alluded to several times in the Bible, but has been important in all the other major world religions.  In the Koran the fig is one of the four sacred symbols; Buddha’s revelations came to him under the banyan (a type of fig tree); and the Hindus regard the banyan as sacred.

Figs (ficus carica) are believed to have been cultivated in the Middle East since the dawn of history.  The ancient Egyptians knew them as early as 2700 B.C., and from this land their cultivation spread throughout the Mediterranean world, and eastward to India and beyond.

In the intervening centuries, to the ancient Egyptians, Hebrews and Hindus, they became a highly esteemed fruit.  Historians have indicated that they were grown in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and later became a staple in the Greek and Roman diets.  The Arabs introduced them into the Iberian Peninsula and in the 16th century the Spaniards brought them to the Americas.

Damascus Figs

Today, there are more than 600 species of the fig tree, a member of the mulberry family of plants that thrive best in areas of low humidity, intense sunshine and hot summers.  The tree, a spread-out shrub with deep-rooted leaves, needs very little pruning.  It is said to be the ultimate indoor fruit tree, since inside it will bear two crops a year, tolerate both dry air and alkaline water, and does not need pollination to bear fruit.

Figs, which usually bear fruit from June to October, come in colours ranging from white to red and almost all the hues in-between.  They are a delicate, sweet and seedy-pulpy fruit, delicious when harvested at their peak of ripeness.  A sure sign that figs are at the epitome of sweetness and flavour and ready to eat are the droplets of a sweet liquid with a delicious aroma forming at the navel.  However, at this stage, they are highly fragile and easily bruise.  Once damaged, figs degenerate very quickly.  They must be handled with the utmost care, becoming too perishable to be sold at a great distance from where they are grown.

With a very limited shelf-life of from 7 to 10 days, fresh figs are never inexpensive and usually only retail in Middle Eastern and other speciality markets.  Only about 5% of the California production, which represents over 90% of North American grown figs, are sold fresh – virtually all transported by air. Hence, most figs are sold dried.

Besides being cultivated in California and, to a much lesser extent, in Texas, figs are grown extensively in the Middle East and the other countries edging the Mediterranean – Italy and Spain producing two thirds of the world’s figs.  However, the finest of the dried figs in the world are to be found near the city of Izmir (ancient Smyrna) in Turkey.

In the folklore of the Eastern and Mediterranean worlds, figs have inspired proverbs like an Italian one that says: `Peel a fig for friend and a peach for your enemy’.   Above all, they have long been associated with sex.  Due to their resemblance to the genitalia, they were considered by primitive humans to be a potent love food. To the Hindus, figs are a symbol of both the female and male reproductive organs. The Greeks associated them with phallic worship, serving them at Dionysian orgies, and the Romans employed figs in several love potions.  Even today, the Berbers of North Africa think of them as fertility symbols.

D.H. Lawrence, who lingered lasciviously on the metaphorical vaginal attributes of ripe figs, wrote that the ripe fig is like a ripe womb, flowering inward.  Continuing, he maintained that unlike other blossoms which stand aloft and reach toward heaven, figs are like women, hiding secrets beneath their fig-leaves where everything happens invisible – flowering and fertilization.  He goes on to say that when the fruit is finely ripe, the sweet droplets oozing out of the crimson interior showing through a purple slit, is similar to a female making a show of her vaginal part.

Leaving folklore aside, fresh figs are nutritionally valuable and have been considered since ancient times as one of the choice foods for the convalescent.  They are more alkaline and contain more mineral matter than most fruits.  Fresh figs consist of 79% water, 18.7% carbohydrates, 1.5% protein, .6% mineral matter and .2% fat.  When dried, the sugar content rises dramatically to 74.2%, protein to 4.3%, fat to .3%, and the minerals soar to 2.4%, but the water content goes down to 18.8%. Additionally, fresh figs can also help aging.

In general figs have the largest sugar content of any common fruit and have the highest fibre content of any fruit, nut or vegetable.  They are rich in calcium, copper, potassium and contain some iron, phosphorus sodium and traces of vitamins A, B and C.  Figs are among the gentlest natural laxatives in the world.  Their unique proteins aid in relieving intestinal disorders and their juice helps to induce sleep.  Some naturalists assert that figs increase the strength of the young and help preserve the elder – making them look younger and less wrinkled.

However, it is as a food that these ‘Garden of Eden’ fruit reach their true stature, realising their ultimate flavour when fully ripe and eaten fresh.  In the countries hugging the Mediterranean coast, to eat a fresh fig off a tree, in the very early morning, is a much looked-forward-to pleasure.  An honoured guest in the villages of the Greater Syria area in the Middle East is always taken to the host’s orchard to sample his figs.

When the winter months come around, every family has their dried figs to serve visitors or, prepared in various ways, as snacks and desserts on the daily menu.  Very tasty, nourishing and usually plentiful, figs continue as a favoured staple in the Mediterranean world.

Today, the dishes enjoyed in these countries for millennia are catching on as far away as the Americas.  These few simple recipes should give one an insight into the culinary delights of this fruit – one of humankind’s oldest foods.


Figs are mouth watering when served ripe and fresh, but reach an even higher plateau in taste when served with cream.  Just peel and slice fresh figs in a bowl for each person, then top with whipped cream and serve.


blanched and toasted whole almonds

dried figs, preferably the Smyrna type


Cut a slit in each fig, then insert an almond.  Re-cover with the flesh of the fig.  Serve as appetizer, for snacks or as dessert.



Serves 4 to 6

1 pound fresh figs, peeled

1/2 teaspoon ground fennel

4 tablespoons crushed walnuts

Halve the figs, then divide evenly on 4 plates, sprinkle with the fennel and walnuts, then serve.


Serves 4

2 cups ricotta cheese

8 fresh figs, peeled

2 tablespoons crushed walnuts

2 tablespoons honey


Place 4 tablespoons cheese on each of 4 plates.

Slice and arrange two figs around ricotta cheese on each plate.  Sprinkle walnuts over cheese and figs, then drizzle with honey and serve.


Figs – First Eaten in the `Garden of Eden’

Serves about 6

2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 cinnamon stick

1/4 teaspoon aniseed

2 cups water

1 pound dried figs

2 tablespoons ground almonds


Place sugar, lemon juice, cinnamon stick, aniseed and water in a small saucepan, then bring to boil.  Drop figs into syrup, then gently cook over low heat for about 40 minutes or until figs plump up, adding more water if necessary.  Transfer figs with their syrup to a serving bowl, then sprinkle with almonds and serve.


Serves 6 to 8


2 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup shortening, melted

1 egg, beaten

1 tablespoon vinegar

1/4 cup milk



3/4-pound ground dried figs

1 cup brown sugar

4 tablespoons butter

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons cornstarch

2 1/2 cups water


First, make a pie dough by combining flour, baking powder and salt in a mixing bowl.  Set aside.

In another small bowl combine, shortening, egg, vinegar and milk, then pour a little at a time of this mixture into dry ingredients and knead into dough that does not easily flake, adding a little water as needed.  Divide dough into two balls, one a little larger.  Set aside.

In the meantime, place remaining ingredients in a saucepan, then stirring constantly bring to boil, adding more water if necessary.  Cook and stir over medium heat until saucepan content begins to thicken then set aside to cool.

Flatten the larger ball to about 1/8-inch thick then use it to line a 9-inch pie plate.  Pour in the saucepan’s contents then flatten the remaining ball.  Top pie plate with flattened dough, then trim and crimp edges.  Bake in preheated 375ºF oven for 40 minutes or until the pie turns golden brown.



Makes 24 Tarts

3/4 pound dried figs, ground

1 cup brown sugar

6 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1 pie crust recipe (see ‘fig pie’ recipe above)


Prepare a filling by thoroughly combining all ingredients, except piecrust, then set aside.

Roll out the dough to about 1/8-inch thickness, then cut into 24 rounds.  In greased medium cup muffin trays, carefully place dough rounds.  Pat into cups and crimp top edges. Spoon filling evenly into the 24 muffin cups.

Bake in a 375ºF oven for about 20 minutes or until top edges of crust turn golden brown.  Allow to somewhat cool then serve warm.


Makes one loaf

1/2 pound dates

1/2 pound figs

1/2-pound ground almonds

4 tablespoons honey

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon aniseed


Place all ingredients in a food processor, then process into a paste.  Transfer to a small bread pan, then refrigerate.  Slice and serve as needed, then return remainder to refrigerator.


Serves 10 to 12

2 cups flour

3 teaspoons baking powder

3/4 teaspoon cinnamon

3/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup raisins, rinsed

1 pound dried figs, ground

3/4 cup melted butter

2 cups brown sugar

4 eggs

1 cup water


Thoroughly combine flour, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and salt in a mixing bowl then add raisins and figs.  Thoroughly mix then set aside in a mixing bowl.

Place remaining ingredients in a food processor, then process for a minute.

Add the processed ingredients to the dry ingredients then mix into a soft batter, adding more water if necessary.  Pour into a well-greased pan, then bake in a 300ºF preheated oven for about 1 hour or until cake is done.


Makes about a quart

Figs are a healthy fruit. There is even folklore that states that figs increase the mobility and number of male sperm and overcome male sterility.

1 pound dried figs, ground

1 cup sugar

1 cup cold water

1 teaspoon ground fennel seeds

6 cloves

1/2 cup pine nuts

1 tablespoon sesame seeds

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Place figs, sugar, water, fennel, and cloves in a saucepan; then bring to boil. Cover and cook over medium heat for 20 minutes or until jam consistency is reached, stirring every few minutes during last 15 minutes. Re move and stir in pine nuts, sesame seeds, and lemon juice; then allow to cool before use.

Note: Store in sterilized containers. Excellent when spread on buttered toast or Arabic bread (pita).