Waiting for the heat and humidity to break and for Rainy Season to officially announce itself present. The sky is dark with heavy clouds but has been teasing for weeks. Our part of Congo, south of the equator, is dried up and dusty, having had no rain for the better part of six months now. The air is hazy and brown, whether you’re looking up from the ground, or down from the windows of an airplane as I was a few days ago. There’s not much to look at.
Despite the dryness there are mangoes starting to grow on our tree for the first time ever, a volunteer seedling that was tiny just a few years ago. I haven’t kept close track of when each variety of tropical fruit ripens around here, perhaps the mangoes will be ready shortly after the first rain. I’ll keep you posted. The avocados are also growing, and I hear the jackfruits are coming along again. We can count on papayas and bananas almost year-round.
There’s one other fruit that’s ready to go at this particular hot, dusty moment: the fig. Shame is, we can’t eat it. At least, that’s what we’ve been told. There’s a large fig tree just outside our yard, and if I’m sitting outside I can hear the nearly constant plop plop of over-ripe figs hitting the ground. We can’t walk to the canteen or the social club without stepping on them, which immediately go squish under our feet.
Tonight the figs are dropping so fast they sound like popcorn. It’s a shower of figs. A harbinger of the coming rainy season, maybe? I had never noticed before. Before the rains come, first it must rain figs.
And the smell. It’s a smell I had subconsciously associated with this part of the year from seasons past. The smell of rotten figs is just as uncomfortable as the heat. They smell offensively heavy, like dirty laundry in a condensing dryer. They attract hordes of flies, and are covered with a fine, white substance that looks like mold or moss, which floats all over our patio and makes us sneeze.
None of this stops the monkey from eating them, however.
I can’t help but wonder if we’re sure these figs aren’t edible. You would think anything that could be eaten around here would be, but we’ve been surprised before. The locals are afraid of the jackfruits growing in a neighbor’s yard, for example, the very same fruit highly beloved in Uganda. One day during prime jackfruit season just after English class finished, students found a photo of the fruit in my picture dictionary, excitedly pointing at it, repeating “maison dix-sept!” (House 17, where it grows.) I asked them if they ate the fruit. No, no, they all replied, emphatic. Apparently their interest in the fruit didn’t go beyond finding its name in the dictionary. Why not? I asked. One person told me it has a reputation for causing stomachaches. Another said nobody around here was willing to try it, and continued: “Les Congolais ont peur de beaucoup de choses.” (Congolese are afraid of lots of things.)
Meanwhile, our vegan neighbors were going to town on the jackfruit after their recent trip to Uganda, finding all kinds of ways to eat it — in smoothies or sushi or salsas, on pizzas, pickled, marinated, raw or cooked. Apparently it makes a nice substitute for shredded pork in carnitas and tacos. While I can’t say I shared the same adoration for the jackfruit when I tried it raw in Uganda, I was pleasantly surprised with several of my neighbor’s recipes and had no ill effects after eating it. Next season, I’ll follow their lead and put more effort into it.
I have all kinds of herbs growing in the garden that the Congolese wouldn’t consider edible. Experimentation in the botanic world is incredibly risky, I can understand, especially when hospital care is so iffy. If there’s no one to teach us what we don’t know, a lot of goodies probably go uneaten. A friend from Australia told me the little bean pods growing on what I thought was just an ornamental vine were edible, something no one else around here knew. They’re quite dried out at the moment, but I expect a good crop soon, after the rains bring the vine back to life. I’ll let you know later how my experiments go with the “winged bean.”
So back to this fig, and whether it’s truly inedible or not. Now might not be a good time to find out, since they’re falling off the trees either rotten or dried out. But what if we got to them earlier? I hate to see something locally available and so copious going to waste.
Any experts out there who can point me in the right direction? From what I can find online, giving these a try is not likely to kill me… “inedible” figs aren’t poisonous, just not very tasty. I would probably attempt cooking or roasting them first.
I guess it’s obvious that I just got back from France, where figs were a regular part of the Provençal menu! It hurts to see them growing right next door to us and not be able to eat them… 😦