I knew they existed. That is to say, I knew that they were orange and called persimmons but I didn’t know much else. I saw signs in Chinatown flaunting a sale of 15 for $5, but I couldn’t buy that many without first knowing more. Even though this temperate fruit can cause pain if eaten before it is ripe enough, it is still part of every fruit display along Spadina, and therefore it must be delicious. I began my research hoping I was correct in assuming dangerous = delicious
The Mexican species (D.digyna) known as black sapote gets unenthusiastic reviews. However, if you ever need to dye a sheepskin black, then black sapote is the way to go – or so I’m told.
American persimmons (D.virginiana) are plum-sized and used to be highly valued in eastern United States, but have since been out-shadowed by the superior kaki (D. kaki).
Kaki is the most popular persimmon worldwide. Native to China, this non-astringent species was adopted by Japan. They are about the size of apples and are prized for their sweetness, which is balanced by their low acidity. The bright orange flesh contains beta-carotene and lycopene and because of this, they share a similar aroma with winter squash.
The most popular cultivars of Kaki persimmons are the flat-bottomed persimmons, Fuyu and the Jiro. Neither is tannic and both can be eaten when still fairly firm. You can peel them before eating, and when you take a bite, make sure not to eat any seeds.
Like the stringy bits inside a banana peel, not everyone enjoys astringency. Astringent persimmons, identified by their acorn shape, need to be very ripe before eating and even then the skin is fairly inedible and is better used as a cup for the pulp inside. The most popular astringent cultivar is the Hachiya, distinguishable by it’s dark yellow flesh.
The astringency comes from the high level of tannins in the fruit. In Japan, unripe, astringent persimmons are crushed, fermented and used as a dye called kakishibu (meaning, persimmon-bitter). Kakishibu was one of the most widely used preservative and weatherproofing agents in Japan during the Heian Period (794 – 1185 AD) and continues to be used in the same way today. Artist Masamichi Terada was “intrigued by the subtle beauty of the material” and decided to devote his life to study and preserve kakishibu-dyeing as an art form.
If you are going to eat the astringent persimmons, you must wait until they are so ripe they are almost liquid beneath the flesh; otherwise, they are inedible. The astringency of an unripe persimmon is due to the tannins, which break down the salivary proteins and cause the mouth to feel dry and sandpapery.
It was centuries ago that the Chinese discovered that if unripe persimmons were buried in mud for several days they would lose their astringency. For the scientific foodies: The lack of oxygen in the mud altered the persimmons’ metabolism, resulting in the accumulation of an alcohol derivative: acetaldehyde, which binds with tannins in the cells, thus preventing them from binding with our salivary proteins. Cool! If you want to try it out yourself, you can tightly wrap your unripe persimmon in cling film; there is no need bury it in mud unless you are hardcore. Freezing the fruit and then thawing it softens the fruit and also removes some of the astringency.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? I am curious about the health qualities of persimmons because in traditional Chinese medicine, bitter foods are connected to the heart. As it turns out, astringent persimmons (shi zi) have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for more than 2,000 years. Some practitioners use fresh persimmon juice to lower blood pressure (note: persimmons DO interact with blood-pressure medicine. So talk to your doctor). More commonly used is the dried calyx. (A calyx includes all of the sepals of a flower, which form the outer floral envelope that protects the developing flower bud.) The persimmon calyx (shi di) is dried in the sun and used to treat ailments of the lungs and stomach. It directs stomach qi downwards, which pushes food downwards in order to remove impurities.
Harvesting and Preparing to eat Persimmons
Harvest season varies depending on elevation, sunlight, et cetera, but wherever they are, the fruit is picked - always leaving the calyx intact - when it is dark orange and still firm – between October and December. For better flavour, non-astringent persimmons can be left on the tree until they are a bit softer.
Persimmons – astringent and non-astringent – are delicious when dried. They can either be peeled and dried whole or cut into slices. In Japan, the dried fruit is called hoshigaki. Traditionally in Japan, the whole, peeled astringent Hachiya persimmons are hung in rows, resembling lanterns so that airflow is even. When astringent persimmons are dried they lose all their astringency and develop a sweet, chewy consistency. Every few days they are massaged gently to distribute the pulp inside. Eventually a white bloom develops; it looks like mould, but in fact it is the sugar drying on the surface. Once dried, the darkened persimmon maintains its acorn shape. In China it is called shi bing, in Vietnam it is known as hồng khô and in Korea it is known as gotgam. In Korea, dried persimmons, cinnamon and ginger are used to make the traditional Korean spicy fruit punch, sujeonggwa. In Korea, persimmon vinegar, called gamsikcho is praised for its health benefits.
If persimmons can be made into vinegar, then they can be made into wine. Persimmon wine is made and enjoyed worldwide. There are also many recipes online that do not seem too difficult; you’ll be hiccuping in no time!
In the United States, persimmon pudding is made in a similar way to pumpkin pie – and also served with whipped cream. Heat accentuates astringency, so adding half a teaspoon of baking soda to every cup of persimmon pulp will help moderate the taste.
There are far too many delicious ways to eat persimmons – I think I’ll make persimmon chutney and go from there. Recipe to come soon or available upon request.