Are figs vegan?
Are figs vegan? It's a question that might sound more than a little paradoxical - after all, what could be more vegan than something that actually grows on a tree? But even so, a debate is currently raging in the vegan community about whether it's legitimate for vegans to eat them.
First of all, though, what exactly is a vegan? Well, a vegan lifestyle is one which tries to minimize exploitation and cruelty by avoiding all animal products - meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy - as well as anything derived from them. The Vegan Society defines it as “a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.” But as the number of vegans has exploded in recent years and a huge market of new ingredients and “faux food” meat substitutes has sprung up to satisfy demand, the question of how exactly this definition should be interpreted has become moot.
Given that they're rich in antioxidants, a good source of fibre, contain calcium, iron, potassium, copper, and vitamins, can be eaten fresh or dried and – most importantly of all - grow on trees, you might be forgiven for thinking that figs would be an ideal addition to a vegan diet. Some, however, disagree.
The crux of the issue is not whether figs are in reality a kind of meat, but rather the way in which they are pollinated. Because the fig tree's “fruit” is actually an enclosed inverted flower, and because its shape means it can't rely on the wind or bees for pollination, it's forced to rely on the help of pollinator wasps - the problem being that the wasps inevitably die in the process. As they crawl through the fig's narrow opening, their wings and antennae break off, leaving them trapped, and the eggs they lay hatch into larvae which burrow out of the fig and then fly away carrying fig pollen with them if they are female, or remain to die in the fig with the original wasp if they are male. Luckily for us, though, the fig fruit produces an enzyme which digests these dead wasps completely.
Can vegans still eat figs?
So this being the case, can vegans eat figs? Predictably there are two schools of thought on the issue, with much depending upon personal interpretations of the concept of veganism itself.
Many vegans think that the essence of the question lies in the phrase “as far as practicable”. They say that there's a world of difference between factory farming and animal testing and the incidental consumption of insects, and point out that animals are inevitably killed – albeit accidentally – even in the production of foods like bread, where some number of mice are certain to be accidentally harvested along with the wheat. Furthermore, some commercially-grown varieties of fig don't actually require wasp pollination, which means that a blanket ban is unnecessary even for those who are disturbed by the wasp issue. And last but not least, as we saw above, the crunchy bits found in figs are seeds and not wasp remains, meaning there is no chance of actually eating a wasp anyway. These vegans say that the symbiotic relationship between figs and wasps is an entirely natural and mutually beneficial one where each species relies on the other for its survival, and that therefore they are not contributing to the exploitation or suffering of animals.
The other camp – those who claim that figs are not vegan - are those who hold to a stricter definition of what being a vegan means. From their perspective, a vegan lifestyle implies dispensing with all those products which are wholly or partly derived from animals, whether intentionally or unintentionally. This means that as far as they are concerned, vegans should avoid eating any food which contains animals or animal products, regardless of whether its production involved animal exploitation or suffering. As far as they are concerned, given that the way in which some figs are pollinated means that each of them contains at least one dead wasp, eating a fig means eating a dead insect, and that is something they refuse to do.
So the answer to the question “do vegans eat figs?” turns out to be, “well, it depends which kind of vegan.”
Whatever your feelings about figs, though, it's difficult to deny that they're delicious. And though we might normally associate them with desserts, they're a versatile ingredient that makes a tasty addition to all kinds of foods, from hors d'oevres to main courses.
The vegans among us might try using figs to liven up a risotto. You'll need 7 or 8 figs for every 500g of carnaroli or arborio rice. Heat some olive oil in a skillet or large frying pan and fry the rice in it for a few minutes. Next, gradually add vegetable broth (other broths will overpower the figs' flavour), adding more as it cooks into the rice. Add the sliced figs in the last few minutes of cooking and stir them gently until they have amalgamated with the mixture.
Dried figs are delicious: one traditional Southern Italian recipe calls for them to be cut in half lengthwise then placed on a tray and exposed to the sun for several days until they are dark and withered, at which point they can be filled with half a walnut, an almond or a candied citron peel, and baked at 180 degrees for about 10-15 minutes until browned.
Caramelised figs also go wonderfully with cheeses like gorgonzola, stracchino and aged cheddar, and make a delicious addition to a cheese sandwich.
Those who aren't vegan, on the other hand, might be tempted by a variation on ossobuco, the legendary Italian dish of braised veal shanks. Marinate the ossobuco in mustard, salt and pepper, then pan fry both sides and braise it with wild game sauce for 90 minutes. Peel and dice the celery and boil for 20 minutes, then drain and whip with cream and butter for three minutes. Remove the ossobuco from the sauce, add figs and gorgonzola and roast in the oven, then decorate and serve.
Another delicious possibility is fig and duck breast kebabs: wash the figs and quarter them lengthwise, then roll up the slices of duck breast and thread them onto skewers, alternating fig quarters with slices of duck. Season with salt and pepper and fry briefly shortly before serving or serve cold.