For a year we lived in a house with a big fig tree. It was the best thing about the house, along with the plum, kumquat, orange, and avocado trees. During a year fraught with challenging life transitions, these magnificent trees, so exotic and peculiar to my tropical origins, blessed us with their alluring fruits.
Among these trees I learned about my new home, my new family, my new life. Under these trees, I was a child in a playground, a daughter caught between two opposing traditions, and a wife embracing a different culture. They were my friends and my refuge, spiritually lifting my conditional existence in an old family home stained by years of decay and neglect.
The fig tree grew on a small mount against the fence that separated the backyard from the neighbor's property. When I tell stories about climbing the fig tree, what I'm really saying is I climbed the mount to get to the tree and stood on my toes to reach the plump ripe figs calling my name, my gaze trained upward to identify fruits that were ready for picking today, tomorrow, or perhaps the day after. I did that almost every day for the entire fig season when my husband and I lived in that house.
When we returned for fig season this year, we found the house in a deeper darkness than when we left it, further ravaged by the inevitable effect of time and a lack of will to live. The tree looked like a shadow of its former glorious self: there were no figs, only emaciated branches and shrunken foliage. I felt something inside me break slowly. I didn't know it then, but this was probably the last time I would see the fig tree as decisions are now being made to put the house up for sale.
Around that time, I got ahold of the Dandelion & Quince cookbook by Michelle McKenzie. You know how people say that sometimes you have to let a book find you? I've heard that so many times since I started working in a bookstore. This cookbook is a beautiful invitation to explore unusual vegetables, fruits, and herbs, and it couldn't have come at a better time. In it are chapters organized by produce both strange and fascinating, like Buddha's Hand, edible weeds, burdock, and, to my surprise, fig leaves. It was just what I needed.
The fig tree did not produce any fruit this season but it had a bunch of healthy leaves, some as big as my face. It never occurred to me to use the leaves but I followed McKenzie's cue, looked up and plucked a leaf from the tree. I rubbed it between my fingers and smelled it, trying to find the scent of "coconut, peat, vanilla, and green walnuts" described in the book. The vanilla hint was immediate and I even detected aromas of the fig fruit I loved so much. It was an eye-opening experience, and my spirits were lifted again. The tree is still alive, were my first thoughts! Let's do something with these fragrant leaves!
The fig leaf recipes provided in the book include using it to braise meat and add flavor to dessert, and cooking rice with it akin to the way banana leaf is used in Southeast Asian cooking. I followed the recipe to make the Fig Leaf Spice Blend to accompany all the roasting I would be doing in the coming colder months.
The spice blend is apparently inspired by Tunisia's tabil and involves drying fig leaves and adding them to coriander seeds, cumin seeds, caraway seeds, and chile. According to the book, it pairs well with lentils, fish, savory yogurt, and roasted vegetables like cauliflower, carrots, and pumpkin. Owing to the aromatic fig leaves, the spice blend has a pleasant sweetness and refreshing greenness to it.
While I may not see the fig tree and the other fruit trees in the backyard again (and the old house for that matter), they have taught me a very important lesson: Always look up. And, as the Dandelion & Quince cookbook has shown me, in our relationship with nature, there's nothing more exciting than the gift of discovery.
What a tribute to the big old fig tree this little spice project has been!
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Fig Leaf Spice Blend
Adapted from Dandelion & Quince by Michelle McKenzie. A unique spice blend based on Tunisia's tabil with the addition of dried fig leaves. This recipe requires advance planning to dry the leaves for about a week. Pairs well with roasted vegetables, especially cauliflower, carrots, and pumpkin. Makes about 1/2 cup.
5 fig leaves
3 tablespoons coriander seeds
2 tablespoons cumin seeds
1 tablespoon caraway seeds
1 dried chile
STEP 1: Wash and dry fig leaves thoroughly. Then place them on a rack or old newspapers to dry at room temperature until they are dry and brittle, about a week. You will be able to easily strip out the stems and crush the leaves with your fingers.
STEP 2: In a small pan on medium-low heat, toast coriander seeds, cumin seeds, caraway seeds, and dried chile, tossing occasionally so they don't burn. Remove from heat and allow the spices to cool to room temperature. Transfer to a spice grinder along with the crushed fig leaves and grind to a powder. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.