Did you know that there are believed to be more than 1,500 varieties of figs in the world? The first time I had a fig and fell in love with it was in Turkey. It was one of the dark skin varieties, Mission or Brown Turkey, which to me at that time was mysterious and exotic. The love affair continued when I moved to a house in California with an old fig tree that produces little green figs called Kadota.
I learned to identify the types of figs I was eating, even when they were dried. It wasn't much later that I realized my family in Malaysia had been cooking with dried figs, particularly to make herbal soups, and that I was enjoying these elixirs without knowing the presence of figs in them. The recipe I'm sharing today, although much simplified in terms of ingredients, is a tribute to that tradition.
Valley Fig Growers California Fig Road Trip
It was an extremely hot day when we visited a Valley Fig Growers farm in Fresno, and we learned from farmer Ken (above) that figs thrive in the valley's long, hot, dry summer. There were about 300 trees in his seven-acre farm, most of them of the Calimyrna variety and planted sometime around the early 1900s. That's more than a hundred years old!
According to the Valley Fig Growers website, all of the commercially sold dried figs produced in the US are grown in the Fresno area and north, in the fertile San Joaquin Valley. California apparently produces all of the country's dried figs and 98% of the fresh figs.
Calimyrna figs (above) have yellow to green skin with gorgeous pinkish flesh. They are sweet with a distinctive nutty flavor. The fruit originated in Turkey, where it's called Smyrna after the famous ancient city and was dubbed Calimyrna when we started growing them in California in the late 1800's.
The other popular variety, mission figs, identifiable by their dark purple skin, succeeded Calimyrna when they came to California with the 16th century Spanish missionaries, hence the name.
I learned that these fig trees have no blossoms on their branches and that the fruits are actually inverted flowers that produce those tiny crunchy seeds that give figs their unique texture. They are pollinated by tiny wasps no bigger than fruit flies.
When dried, Calimyrna figs turn a golden color. Gary, the president of the Valley Fig Growers company, found some sun-dried figs on one of the trees (above) and introduced them as "fig jerky." They sure tasted of the sun!
Harvesting on the farm is all done by hand. The figs are allowed to fully ripen on the trees and fall to the ground naturally. They are then painstakingly picked by hand and collected in buckets and later transferred to wooden containers to be transported for the next steps of the process.
Look at all those figs! When we asked farmer Ken to tell us his favorite way of eating figs, he said "out of the bag". Dried figs are indeed a convenient way to enjoy the fruit all year round. Did you know that half a cup of figs has as much calcium as half a cup of milk? And let's not forget they are rich in vital vitamins and minerals and are a good source of soluble fiber!
In addition to the Calimyrnas from the farm, we also had a chance to sample other types of figs, bringing me a few steps closer to trying all the varieties in the world!
Black Mission is perhaps the most widely available variety in both fresh and dried forms. The slightly elongated Brown Turkey is a large fig, loved for its juicy sweetness but not a good variety to be dried, we were informed.
The most common green fig I was told is the Kadota, which is believed to be thousands of years old. A newer green variety is the very similar looking and super luscious Sierra. As a big fan of figs, I liked them all but a quick survey showed Sierra to be a popular choice at the tasting.
Do you have a favorite fig variety? Let me know in the comments below!
A Recipe with Asian Roots
The tradition of making Chinese soups, or tong, by slow cooking a balance of ingredients for health and medicinal purposes has been ingrained in me since I was young. This simple sweet soup, or tong sui, is naturally sweetened by simmering Asian pears, apples, and dried golden figs together.
If you can get your hands on some sweet apricot kernels (pictured in the bottom right bowl in the photo below), throw them in for they add a pleasant almond-like aroma and crunch. They can be found at Chinese herbal stores and may be labeled as Chinese almonds. Do note that apricot kernels come in two varieties, sweet and bitter. Make sure to get the sweet variety as the bitter variety can be mildly toxic when prepared incorrectly.
Asian Pear and Dried Fig Soup
A simple Chinese-style sweet soup or tong sui made of fresh fruits simmered together with dried golden figs. Serves 4.
6 cups water
2 medium Asian pears, peeled, cored, and cut into wedges
1 medium apple, peeled, cored, and cut into wedges
6 small to medium dried golden figs (such as Calimyrna)
1 tablespoon sweet apricot kernels (optional)
In a large pot, place water with the pears, apples, dried figs, and sweet apricot kernels (if using). Bring to a boil over high heat. Then reduce heat to medium and simmer for 1 hour. The fruits should be completely soft but still hold their shape. Serve hot or at room temperature.