What Is a Fig? Plus, How to Eat Figs
There's something magical about eating a fresh fig. It comes off as demure, but one bite reveals how shockingly colorful and flavorful it is inside. Figs also connect you to the history of humanity. After all, how many other foods can say they've been written about in the Bible, eaten by Greek Olympians and talked about in ancient mythology? Yes, there's something magical about figs, but don't let that intimidate you. There's a reason why people have been eating figs since the Neolithic period—they're easy, delicious and nourishing. Here's everything you need to know about figs.
Related: Healthy Fig Recipes
What Is a Fig?
Despite being called a fruit, a fig is technically a syconium—a tiny group of inverted flowers growing inside a pod. Each pod contains hundreds of flowers, and each flower produces a small seed, which is the actual fruit of the fig plant. An achene contains each seed. We see them more commonly on the outside of strawberries. Each fig consists of hundreds of achenes (they're the slightly crunchy bit), which means that every time you eat a fig, you're actually eating multiple fruits at one time. The flesh around the achene (the soft delicious part that we enjoy the most) is accessory fruit, even though to us it's the main event.
Figs' Origin and History
Figs are believed to have originated in Western Asia. They arrived in the Mediterranean region, and consequently the rest of the world, through human migration. Archaeological evidence traces figs back to at least 5000 B.C. Some scholars believe that figs were one of the first plants to be domesticated by humans.
Throughout history, figs have also been used as a symbol of peace, prosperity and fertility. The fruit was an important part of ancient Greek and Roman life and continues to play a symbolic role in certain religions such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and Buddhism—Buddhists believe that the Buddha found enlightenment while sitting under a fig tree.
Where and When Do Figs Grow?
Figs grow in climates that are warm and dry like in the Mediterranean region. In the U.S., the majority of figs are grown in California.
Figs are available during the summer to early fall depending on the variety. When choosing figs, look for ones that are plump but still give a little when touched. Figs don't ripen after being picked, so avoid ones that are very firm. Fresh figs are delicate and do not last very long. Make sure to store them in the refrigerator and eat them within a week of purchasing. If you choose to leave them out, be prepared to eat them with a couple of days. Alternatively, dried, canned and frozen figs are available year-round at many major grocery stores.
Do Figs Have Dead Wasps in Them?
The vast majority of figs cultivated for market in the U.S. come from self-pollinating fig trees. Outside the mass market agricultural system, some figs are still pollinated by female wasps. According to the BBC's Science Focus Magazine, "If the fig is a male, she lays her eggs inside. These hatch into larvae that burrow out, turn into wasps and fly off, carrying fig pollen with them. If the wasp climbs into a female fig, she pollinates it, but cannot lay her eggs and just dies alone. Luckily for us, the female fig produces an enzyme that digests this wasp completely. The crunchy bits are seeds, not wasp parts." Phew!
Varieties of Figs
There are hundreds of types of figs. They vary in color and size, but in terms of taste, there are only subtle differences between varieties. All figs have a jam-like quality and taste like a mix between a strawberry, currant and date. Underlining these flavors are notes of honey, flowers and nuts. Here are five common varieties sold in the U.S.
Black Mission Figs
Named after the Spanish Franciscan missionaries who brought them over to California in the 1700s, these figs have a dark purple exterior and deep pink interior. They're known for being particularly sweet.
These figs have a teardrop shape and are yellow-green on the outside and pink-brown on the inside. They're not as sweet as Mission figs and are commonly used for canning.
Brown Turkey Figs
True to their name, these figs have purple-brown skin and a red interior. They're large and milder than other fig varieties. This variety of the fruit is also sometimes referred to as Black Spanish figs.
These figs are large and squat with green skin and bright pink flesh. They're noted as having a nuttier flavor profile. When grown in California, they're called Calimyrna but when grown in Turkey, they're known as Smyrna.
These figs are medium in size and have pale, yellow-green skin that is sometimes striped. Their insides are vibrant pink-red, and they tend to have a stronger flavor than other fig types.
How to Eat Figs
Figs are wonderful eaten whole and raw, but they can also be roasted like in this easy and irresistible recipe for Honey, Balsamic & Rosemary Roasted Figs. Grilled figs can make for fragrant appetizers when entertaining at home, as with these elegant Grilled Figs with Honeyed Goat Cheese & Thyme, or serve these delicious Goat Cheese Crostini with Fig Compote made with dried Mission figs. If you simply want to capture that figgy flavor but aren't sure how you want to use your figs yet, make an easy fig jam. Figs work well in both sweet and savory dishes, and can easily be paired with many different flavor profiles and textures.
For this recipe, which works just as well as a snack as it does as an appetizer, you only need a baguette, blue cheese, honey and Mission figs.
Aside from being eaten as a tasty snack, dried figs can be incorporated in stews and taste great with hearty meats such as duck and lamb, like in this recipe for Lamb, Fig & Olive Stew. They can easily be incorporated into a salad, like this simple Fig & Goat Cheese Salad. They taste especially great with a balsamic vinaigrette.
Figs are naturally sweet and are an easy ingredient to use in desserts, like in this beautiful Fresh Fig Tart. Or, for something super easy, simply slice and eat with Greek yogurt.
What Are the Health Benefits of Figs?
Figs are not only tasty but they're also full of good-for-you nutrients and potential health benefits. (Learn more about the nutritious aspects of figs.)
Figs are a good source of fiber and have long been used as a home remedy to promote digestive health. One study found that people with certain types of irritable bowel syndrome saw a reduction in symptoms after consuming dried figs twice a day for eight weeks.
Figs are also full of phenolic acids and flavonoids, which are powerful antioxidants that can help prevent damage caused by free radicals which can contribute to chronic disease risk and inflammation. Dark-skinned and dried figs are especially rich in these antioxidants.
Additionally, figs are a good source of magnesium, potassium and calcium, which are important minerals for supporting bone health.
Related: What to Eat for Healthy Bones
Some Warnings About Figs
For most people, figs are a nutritious and delicious treat. However, if you're on blood-thinning medications, be careful to consume figs in moderation because they're rich in vitamin K, which can interfere with your prescription. Additionally, if you have an allergy to latex, know that fig trees naturally produce latex and thus you may want to be cautious about their fruits.
Lastly, some people may experience an itchy or sore tongue after eating too many figs. This is caused by an enzyme called ficin. Too much exposure to ficin can cause the tongue to burn and itch temporarily.
There's a reason why people have been eating figs for centuries—they're tasty, healthy and simple to prepare. Next time you come across figs at the store, grab a package or two. You'll be surprised at how quickly you'll go through them.