Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Foraging Ice Plant Fruit- Hottentot Figs, Sour Figs, Sea Figs

I would call myself a pretty adventurous eater. I mean, I eat banana peels, how can I not be adventurous? I also love foraging, finding new types of wild edibles to pick and eat. So when I heard that the fruit of the ice plant was edible, I knew I had to try it out.
Last year when I went to the seaside on vacation, I picked a fruit from an ice plant, took a bite, and promptly spit it out. It was disgusting. Slimy, salty, sweet, mushy, seedy. Uch.
I didn't understand how people ate such things- they were quite revolting, and as I said above, I'm not easily turned off by foods, no matter how strange.
But eat them they do.

Ice plants, carpobrotus edulis, it turns out, are a native of South Africa, but they're cultivated in gardens around the world, from where they've spread as an invasive species, covering large areas. (My next door neighbors have ice plants growing in their garden.)The plants are made of lots of light or dark green finger like fleshy leaves on a greenish or reddish mat of stems, leaves that have 3 distinct sides and moist insides like aloe or other succulents. They have either yellow, white, or magenta, or purple flowers that remind me a bit of sea anemones.  South Africans call the fruit of this plant sour figs, sea figs, or hottentot figs, and commonly use them in jams.

Recently, when I went back to the coast, I again saw ice plants, and as I was on a quest to see what I could forage on vacation, I decided to give hottentot figs another chance, so that maybe this time I could finally see the appeal that these strange little fruit had for South Africans. Fortunately, I got it right, and now know how to make these fruit actually taste edible.

Here's a mat of ice plants growing.

Here's one ice plant flower in the sea of ice plant leaves.

When the flowers mature, the petals fall off while the ovaries of the plant swell up, leaving the ice plant with a bunch of greenish purplish orange fruit that kind of look like ping pong balls with horns.

Here's a closeup of the fruit of the ice plant. This is what you want to pick if you want to eat your sea fig/sour fig/hottentot fig.

Now here's the important part, the part I only learned now.

Do not take a bite of the fruit as is, unless you want to be grossed out as I was the first time I tried them.
The outside of the fruit is an icky, slimy, salty layer. Inside it is a little fruit that is seedy and sweet.
To eat it, first peel off the outside, as I show step by step in the pic below, and then eat the inside.

As far as I know, there are no poisonous look a likes.

I wasn't able to find nutritional information for the plant.

Medicinal benefits of ice plants:
The leaf juice is antiseptic, and is gargled to treat throat and mouth infections. It is taken orally for dysentery, digestive troubles, tuberculosis and as a diuretic. It is applied externally to treat eczema, wounds and burns. It is said to be effective against toothache, earache and oral and vaginal thrush. Mothers used to wipe the baby's mouth after lactation, with a cloth soaked with the juice of the sour fig. 
(From here)

I haven't tried cooking with these, but after I finally figured out the trick in how to eat them, I was just eating one after the other after the other, all I could get my hands on. They taste good. They're still slimy, but at least once you peel them they're not sweet, salty, and slimy!

Have you ever seen ice plants growing? Ever seen the fruit? Ever eaten the fruit? Did you know the fruit was edible?
Have there been any foods that the first few times you ate them, you thought they were so gross, only to find out afterward that you were eating them incorrectly, and that's why they tasted so bad? What food was it?

Linking up to  Simple Lives Thursday


  1. South Africans eat them after they are dried.

  2. Thanks! I took a few cuttings of this plant and planted them in my yard & they're spreading like crazy. I'm happy to hear that I can use the leaves and the seeds for something. Re: trying something, hating it & finding out I did it wrong -- I cooked beef kidneys in my early 20's and did not know that you needed to soak them first. Yep. Tasted just like urine. Probably because it WAS urine.

  3. I wish I had known this growing up! I was raised in San Diego, and we had ice plant all over. There was a huge hill of it in my front yard. All I really remember about it is how many bees flocked to it, but I would have loved to stop for an after-school snack in the yard!

  4. You're supposed to eat them dried. You don't eat the green fleshy bits. If you don't like the salty, sour flavour, you should try them preserved. You can find a recipe for it in the Cape Malay Cookbook.

  5. Yip, you tried them in the total wrong form. They MUST be dried in order for you to get the full taste other than that im sure it tastes as horrible as you have discribed

  6. Try making a jam with the dried fruit , just slow boil the whole fruit with lots of sugar and a little water, its delicious much better than the raw fruit .(they are a reddish brown colour when ripe to eat, and should be left to ripen on the plant)

  7. In South Africa we call them Sour figs tis is what the fruit looks like when its ripe


  8. In South Africa it's also known as "Turks Vye", I assume it originates from Turkish Fruit. I know that it's only eaten in its dry format or as a jam (Jelly in some countries), but I cant get them to dry on the plant before they rot. Has anyone a suggestion to stop them from rotting on the plant? I don't water them once the flower dies off.

    1. I thought a "Turks Vy" was a prickly pear.

      When dry you still peel away the outside of the sour fig, and then you eat. as children we ate a lot.

    2. Turks vy is a prickly pear, you peel it and eat the fruit on the inside but beware of the thorns when you peel it. Rub the fruit on a grassy patch to get rid of the thorns, then slice the ends off, slit it length wise, open the cut and insert your fingers as if grabbing the fruit the peel will be worked off with your fingers. Refrigerate or eat as is.

  9. Turk vy is prickly pear .Sour figs are hottentot figs .I just got a packet rom a friend from South Africa and will make ery hajam .They are dried .To eat them dried they are very hard but soak them in water over night and they become juicy and you can eat them .Not sticky at all

  10. Ice plant preserves the dunes around Cape Town naturally. The dunes are under threat due to motor sports such as 4x4 vehicles and quad biking. When I first came to Cape Town as a young girl, I thought my new friends were playing pranks on me trying to get me to eat this dry husk. Cape Town has winter rain fall, so all summer long these fruits get to ripen and dry naturally with the sea breezes aiding the process. It's better than sour-worms! It's one of my favorite childhood memories! That and making daisy chains from the daisies that spread in the fields in spring, across Cape Town. Foraging is very African, we have herbs and spinach type weeds we add to potatoes, we enjoy simple foods. It's so nice to know that you too share our local delicacies. Lucia

  11. How odd that you describe them as being sweet, salty, mushy, seedy: uch! After I ate them for the first time I described them as being sweet and salty, seedy and juicy and absolutely yum. The bit you didn't originally peel off I find bitter (as well as being slimy).
    Here in Aus this plant is more likely to be called pigface. The plant we are more likely to call Ice plant is a mesembryanthemum. Its leaves are not at all slimy and are great in a salad. Now I must go outside and eat some of each. :)

  12. I had ice plant leafs the first time as a salad in China. Boy! it was so crispy and tasty. I love it. I have never seen or heard ice plant as a salad in US, the least not from the coastal or bay area in California.

    Thanks to the writer and all visitors' comments. I am going to give it a shot of ice plants' fruits which i do have in my coastal home.

    1. My first experience with ice plant was as a salad in China, as well. It is only available for a short period of time and I always make sure to get it when it is in season. Once I learned what it was, I realized that I used it in window boxes as a filler, years ago. But it is difficult to find in where i live now - and in fact, it was only available in a couple of greenhouses where I lived at the time. I would like to try to grow some, but do not know where to find the seeds or plants.

  13. Don't eat the green ones. When they are ripe (slightly yellow) then pick them. Just bite off the bottom and squeeze the sweet sticky goodness into your mouth! Yummy! Otherwise next best bet is the dried ones. :-)


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