Ficus Indica

Ficus Indica

Aylin Öney Tan -
Ficus Indica Barbed bulbs of taste, they are…  Spiny, spiky, threatening outside; succulent honey-like flesh inside… One of the most underestimated late summer Mediterranean fruits must surely be the cactus fruit. The ripened fruits are sold in street carts in southern towns like Adana, Antalya, Mersin, Tarsus and others. Nestled in big blocks of ice, they are stripped of their spiny peel with a masterly blow of a sharp knife by the vendor and at an instant, handed to you like a popsicle from heaven. The gelatinous sweet flesh full of seeds is delightfully refreshing. 

Known by several names, it is mostly recognized by the name “prickly pear.” Its Latin name, Opuntia ficus indica, refers to an Indian origin that is totally wrong. The plant has nothing to do with Old World, just as the whole cactus family comes from the New World as a Columbian exchange gift to the Mediterranean. It is thought to be native to Mexico, where it is as important as maize or agave economically. In Mexico, the plant is not only grown for its fruit, but also as an animal fodder and as a vegetable. The young tender cactus pads called nopales are amazingly tasty and refreshingly reminiscent of fresh green beans, which are wonderful when fried with eggs. However, throughout the Mediterranean, the Mexican origin is seldom recognized; the fruit is usually tagged as Indian, in many cases not really as an indication of origin, but simply meaning exotic, or a novelty (actually there is trick in that Indian tagging). In Sicily for example, in the local dialect, it is ficudinnia, from the Italian “fico d’India,” the fig from India. In Turkey the popular names used for the spiky plant usually try to nail down its origins, like the “Mısır inciri,” “Frenk inciri” and, most commonly, “Hint inciri;” meaning the Egyptian, French or Indian fig, respectively. In all cases, though the locality totally fails to be correct, the similarity with figs is apropos, with all the abundant seeds and sun kissed honey-like taste.

There is one exception to the Indian connection or fig-likening of the cactus fruit. In Hebrew, it is called Sabra; but the term ended up being used by young Israelis. Now the Sabra is the symbol of the Israel-born generation who has not lived elsewhere, even if their parents were immigrants from other places. The term began being used as early as the 1930s, even before the country was established. Ottoman Palestine had been a desired destination for many Ottoman Jews, as well as many other Jews in Europe. Since then, and especially after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, a new native generation has been formed, speaking Hebrew from birth, unlike their parents. This generation is likened to the prickly, spiny cactus fruit, tough and even threatening outside, but sweet and tender inside. Apparently the delicate interior is hard to reach; and the elusive nectar is an acquired taste. 

It is interesting how a Mexican fruit has become the symbol of the children of a nation a world apart. When Sephardic Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, they headed for the Ottoman lands east of the Mediterranean; in the very same days in August, the ships of Columbus were setting sail the opposite direction in what would eventually end with the European discovery of the Americas. The fruit was yet to be spread in the hot Mediterranean climate, reminiscent of the Mexican semi-arid landscape. Within time, the Mexican plant found perfect home in countries like Spain, Italy – mostly Sicily – Malta, Tunisia, Cyprus Greece and Turkey. The Indian naming in all these countries was actually referring to the American connection; the New India, the West Indies!

An old Sephardic song longs for the lost motherland, longing to eat its fruits and to drink its water. It says “I want to go mother; to Jerusalem; I want to go mother, to the sacred land; To eat its fruits; To drink its water.” 

Ir me kero madre
A Yerushalayim
Ir me kero madre
A la tierra santa
Komer de sus frutos
I bever sus aguas” 

Obviously the fruit suggested here could not be the Ficus Indica; it must have been the common fig or date or something else but definitely not the prickly pear. The mothers and fathers of the “Sabra” may have followed the call of the song and migrated to the ancestral starting point to taste the fruits of the Promised Land; eventually their offspring became the prickly pear fruit of the country, as the new fruit was transplanted from the New World to the Middle East.

Cork of the Week

Sasha Petraske, the father of modern cocktail culture, has died at the young age of 42. Once you listen to him explaining how to make the speakeasy bar classic Bees Knees cocktail, you’re amazed by the simple sophistication in his approach to making cocktail. 

In tribute to Petraske, I’ll pour myself this cocktail, replacing the honey syrup with prickly pear nectar: Pass the prickly pear pulp through a sieve, enough to make 3/4 ounce. Squeeze half a lemon with your hands and measure the same amount, ¾ ounce. Combine both with two ounces of gin in a shaker. Add a big chunk of ice and shake for a few minutes. Train to a cool glass and drink to the soul of Sasha Petraske.