Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Beware Indian Figs

One of the most painful foods to eat (painful, that is if you try to handle them with your fingers) are fichi d’India, literally ‘figs of India’ or, as I grew up knowing them, prickly pear.

Anyone who has travelled through Sicily and southern Italy as we did a few years ago (see my book Just a Little Italian) will remember the huge cactus plants growing on roadsides and dotted incongruously in fields.

Those pale-green pads the size of tennis racquets are spiked with vicious thorns, and the plump red or yellow egg-shaped fruit that grow from them are just as dangerous. Their skin is a booby trap full of the finest, almost invisible hairlike spines which attach themselves to clothes and skin without invitation.

So why trouble with such a fruit­ – one that is intent on becoming your enemy, it seems?

Southern Italians have long prized this fruit for a number of reasons. It grows readily in hot arid soil, and it is generous with the fruit it provides. It is free food for foragers, a plus in the past when these regions were sorely poverty-stricken.

After getting our fingers well and truly prickled by the spines in Sicily, we were later told that we should have held them in newspaper while we scooped out the flesh. Some people rub the fruit in sand or swiftly pass them over a flame to remove the spines.

Elsewhere in Sicily, at Modica on the southern coast, in one amazing shop we discovered chilli chocolate and  a liqueur made from fico d’India. The owner warned us that if we ate the chocolate and then drank the  liqueur, ‘then you need someone standing by!’ because of its aphrodisiac results. I didn’t test that tale.

This cactus is only native in the western hemisphere, not on the Indian subcontinent. So why the name ‘figs of India’?

Prickly pear cacti are indigenous to North America, occurring from the arid north-west, through the Rockies, and down to Mexico where they are abundant. They were named for the Native American ‘indians’ and when the fruit was introduced into Europe, the name went with it, at least to Italy. I didn't know that.

Fans of fichi d’India say the flavour is like a cross between strawberry and watermelon, but personally, I would rather eat either of those fruits individually for the rest of my life, (and especially real figs) rather than risk another cactus attack simply to enjoy the flavours in unison!

Do you like this fruit? What is your tip for eating it comfortably? Do you use it in cookery – and if so, how?


  1. Ahhh! The Prickly Pear - I remember them well from my youthful days.

    The first introduction of prickly-pear into Australia can be definitely ascribed to Governor Philip and the earliest colonists in the year 1788. Brought from Brazil to Sydney, they remained in Sydney for 50 years, until they were brought to New South Wales to a farmer's garden in 1839. The farmer's wife gave cuttings to neighbours and friends, who planted it not only in their gardens but also as hedgerows. So began the Australian invasion that caused major ecological damage in the eastern states.

    The moth Cactoblastis cactorum from South America, the larvae of which eat prickly pear, was introduced in 1925 and almost wiped out the cactus population. The son of the noted entomologist Frederick Parkhurst Dodd, Alan Dodd was a lead official in combating the prickly pear. There is a memorial hall in Chinchilla (Queensland) commemorating the moth.

    1. Thanks, John, for this extra information.

  2. Hi Sally,
    These look a lot like the prickly pear cactus bulb that some people eat in the southwestern US. Its the same with lots of little thorns and they are hard to prepare.

  3. You are absolutely right, David. The Italian name for this fruit translates as 'figs of India' but it is not the subcontinent India, but it rfers to the the 'Indians' (Native Americans) of North America.

  4. I regularly use prickly pear as a treatment for inflammation. My husband and I discovered it when he developed polymyalgia rheumatica at the age of 79. He tried prednisone at first but developed a bad reaction. We bought the juice from Trivita initially but discovered we could not afford it so we decided to make our own. We use a reconditioned Montel Williams juicer. We peel the pear first with a small sharp knife and then put it in the juicer along with water to taste. After poking our fingers a few times we just discovered we could hold the pear with newspaper. It tastes decent with a flavor like melon. Sugar should not be added because it is inflammatory. You can add stevia because it is anti-inflammatory but we prefer the pear juice plain. Our only difficulty is not being able to purchase it when it is out of season for about 2 months (May to August) or sold out. I am beginning to discover other foods like carrots and pomagranates that can be juiced and are also anti- inflammatory. I have not had enough experience yet with these two to tell if they are just as effective but time will tell. My husband no longer has any inflammation.

    1. Thanks for this. Great information and so glad it has been beneficial for your husband. Have you tried freezing extra juice when the pears are in season, and then using that during the months it is out of season?

  5. Step #1: Don gloves to protect your hands from the spines. Slice both ends off the fruit and discard.
    Step #2: Make one long cut down the body of the fruit.
    Step #3: Slide your finger inside the slice and peel off the thick skin wrapped around the fruit. Chop or juice as required.

    1. My southern Italian Father slices them using this method (without gloves). He grips it gently with thumb and middle finger. I use the same method but with gloves. He has three plants, one each of red, orange and light green fruit.