Before my first trip to Sicily, I had never heard of fichi d'india. And then when I did hear about them, I didn't believe it. On the surface (literally) they seem like something you could never eat, or something that would really hurt you if you tried. Instead, they make a delicious, juicy, refreshing snack — but only if you know how to eat them.
What is a fico d'india?
The fico d'india or the Opuntia ficus-india or the (easier to pronounce) prickly pear (although why it's called a pear I don't know, since "fico" means "fig"), is a colorful, slightly oval-shaped fruit that grows on a cactus, as seen in the photo above.
They are very prevalent in Sicily, less so in its fellow southern regions of Calabria and Puglia, and pretty much absent in the north except in grocery stores, which is really a shame. In the late summer and early fall, it is truly a beautiful sight to see the winding roads of Sicily lined with their bright pinks, oranges, yellows, and greens.
As if that wasn't interesting enough for my target audience of Americans in Italy, check this out: the origin of these exotic, beautiful, totally badass fruits isn't Italy. It's the Americas.
The fruit can be traced back to Mexico, where it is still an important crop today. Christopher Columbus, still under the impression that he had found India when he landed in North America, "discovered" the fruit and named it "Indian fig." He brought it to Italy, where it flourished, and where Sicily is now the second-largest producer of the cactus fruit after its homeland.
Fichi d'india are complicated fruits
Now that we know the origin story of the fico d'india, we get to the real question: how the heck does anyone even eat these things??
As one would expect from a fruit that grows on a spiny cactus, the thick skin of the fico d'india is covered in little thorns that can really tear up your hands if you don't know how to pick or prepare them. And, worse than that, they also have a whole mess of secondary spines that are almost like tiny, quasi-invisible hairs that get stuck in your hands with their little hooked ends and you can't get them out without tweezers.
In fact, they are so heavily armed that anyone who picks them from the plant has to use a special tool, one of which basically looks like a tin can on a stick. You cover the fruit with the "can," then make a twisting motion to pull the fruit off the cactus. Then you never touch it without thick gloves on unless you want to get a hand that looks like a porcupine!
If you can get past its threatening exterior, you will see something that I have been told is a huge turn-off for visiting Americans: the bulk of the fruit (except for a bit of brightly colored pulp) is seeds. Aside from pomegranates and strawberries, we don't typically eat the seeds of a fruit, we usually pick out the seeds and toss them in the trash. But if you do that with a fico d'india, you'll have hardly anything left!
My sister-in-law told me that most of the non-Italians (and even some Italians who didn't grow up in Sicily like her family) either don't eat fichi d'india at all because it's too intimidating, or they eat it wrong. But this is a real injustice, because this fruit is one of the best Italy has to offer!
So, if you're ready to keep trying where many have given up hope, keep reading, and I will tell you how to eat the delicious fico d'india without hurting yourself or wasting fruit.
How to actually eat a fico d'india
Okay, the first problem is the spines. You can't just shave them down or pluck them out, so you have to be very careful. Wearing a thick pair of gloves, you take each individual fico d'india and cut through the thick skin and peel it off (this is best done by an experienced fichi d'india preparer if you can find one).
Now, you have a really pretty, hopefully very juicy, fruit that's ready to eat. But how?
First, I have been told explicitly that, even in the polite, fancy company of a dinner party, you don't eat this fruit with a fork. You pick it up with your hands and take a nice big bite without removing (or complaining about) the seeds.
Now, this is where things get a bit weird. Your natural instinct will be to chomp down on the seeds and chew them, but you have to resist this. Instead, you take the bite and press it to the roof of your mouth to release the juices and the pulp. Then, once it has a more "mashed" consistency, you just swallow it. Your basic goal is to move it around in your mouth, guiding both the seeds and the actual fruit from your tongue to the top of your mouth, then down your throat.
It seems bizarre, but once you get the hang of it, it's really a cool sensation to basically be swallowing a fruit without chewing it. Plus it has a light, almost dessert-like flavor that is what makes it worth it to go through all this trouble!
Have you ever eaten a fico d'india? Do you have any tips for newbies? Let us know in the comments!