Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Persimmons

The persimmon is definitely one of the more esoteric finds at your local farmers' market. Despite being the national fruit of Japan, the autumnal hued persimmon still elicits head scratches on our side of the world. (It looks like the weird cousin of a tomato! How do I eat it?) Add that to a sometimes astringent, bitter flavor and you've got a recipe for confusion. Are we missing out on a tasty treat?

A Brief History

First, we need to separate persimmons into two camps — Asian and American.

Diospyros kaki, or the Japanese persimmon, is the fruit typically found in markets stateside. With a history that stretches back 2,000 years to Asia, it is one of the oldest cultivated plants in the world, used as both a source of food and medicine. Persimmons arrive in markets in autumn and are often preserved through a labor intensive drying process, which intensifies sweetness and minimizes their puckering astringency. The two varieties most commonly found are the tomato shaped Fuyu and the acorn shaped Hachiya.

Although originally from China, these cultivars are referred to as Japanese because Commodore Matthew C. Perry brought their seeds back to the US after his historic expedition to Japan in the 1850s. Later, Japanese immigrants to California in the early 20th Century added another dash of cross-cultural pollination, planting persimmon trees where they settled much like their Italian counterparts and the fig.

Japanese persimmons' North American cousin. D. virginiana, is consumed mostly by wild edible enthusiasts or those lucky enough to have one growing in their backyard. Its history dates back to prehistoric times. Native Americans ate it dried or as an ingredient in loaves of bread. In fact, the word persimmon is an Anglicized version of pessamin or putchamin, one of the few Algonquin words to survive into English. It means "dried fruit."

Captain John Smith of Jamestown fame wrote of the persimmon in 1607, "If it is not ripe, it will drive a man's mouth awrie with much torment. But when it is ripe, it is as delicious as an apricock."

Factual nibbles

  • A member of the ebony family, persimmon wood is a hardwood that is sometimes a source of ornamental objects, inlay and even golf clubs.
  • Their genus name, diospyros, is greek for "food of the gods."
  • Persimmon leaves are rich in Vitamin C and have been used to treat scurvy.
  • D. digyna, a persimmon native to Mexico, is said to taste like chocolate pudding when ripe. It shouldn't be confused with the Maru, aka the chocolate persimmon, which is a rare cultivar from Asia.
  • Roasted and ground persimmon seeds were a substitute for coffee during the scarcities of the Civil War. Confederate drinkers must have been truly desperate because this brew is caffeine free.
  • Allegedly your locally grown persimmon is a forecaster of cold weather. If you slice the seed in half and see the shape of a knife, you're in for a blistering winter. See a spoon? Get your shovel ready as there will be lots of snow.
  • In the Buddhist religion, persimmons are a symbol of transformation. In China, persimmons are an auspicious gift to newlyweds to celebrate eternal love.

Cultivation

American persimmons are native to the southeast and midwestern states of America. They grow readily in the wild and can be identified by a distinctive block-like pattern on its bark. While not a popular food, the persimmon does play a major role in a few regional food cultures, including Indiana's.

As for the Asian variety, it’s still not that common to come across persimmons in your local market, probably owing to a couple of factors. One, persimmons do not ship well and when they do ship they are often sent unripe. Two, because of its mild climate and a history of persimmon cultivation, California commercially grows the most fruit in the US — and not much at that. For the most part, the persimmon remains an exotic fruit either foraged in the wild, grown for small scale commercial production or grown as an ornamental tree.

Seasonality

If you're lucky enough to live on the west coast, October and November is the height of persimmon season, and fruits are readily found in markets into December. The rest of us will have to keep a sharp eye out at specialty stores or make friends with neighbors who have access to trees.

Environmental impact

As persimmons are not overly cultivated, they have little environmental impact in the US. However the majority of persimmons grown in the world come from China, a country that doesn't have the best record when it comes to sustainable agricultural practices. The persimmon also does well when watered regularly in well drained soil and therefore has a moderate water footprint.

Characteristics

Beyond the geographical divide, persimmons fall into two categories — astringent and non-astringent. Astringent varieties such as the Japanese Hachiya and the American persimmon are sharp and bitter in taste unless they have been carefully ripened to the point of a jelly-soft consistency on the inside. Non-astringent varieties such as the Fuyu can be eaten out of hand, skin and all. Persimmons are also notable for their deep orange or red coloring.

What to look for

To tell the difference between astringent and non-astringent Japanese persimmons, remember — red Hachiyas are acorn-shaped and inedible unless ripened and orange Fuyus are tomato-shaped and ripe when you purchase them. Hachiyas will likely be sold underripe so don’t be confused by their crisp texture or tempted to eat one before it's soft. Your mouth will not be pleased if you do! It's said that a Hachiya is ripe when it feels heavy and squishy like a water balloon. Also keep an eye out for good, rich coloring and a green calyx. Black streaks on the skin of a Hachiya are not uncommon and are not a sign of rot.

Nutrition and effects on the body

The persimmon is an excellent source of Vitamin A and C. One fruit provides 55 percent and 21 percent of daily recommended values respectively. They are also a good source of fiber and manganese. If the taste wasn't enough, people should steer clear of unripe persimmons because the tannins, stomach acid and indigestible plant material can form a bezoar — a hard mass that can lead to gastric obstruction and surgery. Trust me when I say, don’t Google "phytobezoars."

What to Do with It

Cooking

While being careful to properly ripen, persimmons are best eaten raw. The Fuyu can be sliced up and added to salads or eaten out of hand like an apple. Fans of the Hachiya praise its pudding-like consistency when fully ripened, using a spoon to scoop out the interior. In fact the high pectin content in persimmons has historically been used to make jelly and as a thickening agent. The fruit can also be added to muffins and cakes.

Storage

To ripen your Hachiya, store leaf side down on your kitchen counter. This process can take days and should not be rushed lest you get a mouthful of tannins. Fuyus, however, need to maintain a crisp consistency and are better stored in the refrigerator.

Pro tip

There are two shortcuts you can take to hasten ripening. One, you can place a persimmon in a sealed container with an apple or banana, two fruits that produce ethylene gas that will soften a Hachiya in about three to four days. The other technique is to freeze unripe persimmons. Upon fully thawing out, the persimmon is ready to eat when jelly soft, but there are some divisions on whether this shortcut is worth the effort. Allegedly the taste of a thawed persimmon is no match for one that has patiently ripened on your counter or a tree.

Stretching your food dollars through preservation

Freezing and dehydrating are an excellent way to preserve your persimmon haul. If you have some time on your hands, the traditional Japanese way to preserve persimmons, called hoshigaki, is to string them up and massage them daily for three to five weeks until soft and chewy. You can also make persimmon jelly.

Recipe

Persimmon Slices with Brie and Arugula

Here is a seasonal twist on the classic caprese salad and an inventive way to use the Fuyu. Instead of tomato, take a slice of persimmon, top with softened knob of brie and a sprig of baby arugula, finishing off with a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. This autumnal snack serves four, but can easily be doubled or tripled for a larger crowd.

This recipe is also gluten free and vegetarian.

Ingredients:
2 Fuyu persimmons
A wedge of Brie cheese (approximately 3 ounces), softened to room temperature
1/2 cup of baby arugula leaves, washed and dried
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 pinch of sea salt

Method:

1. Rinse the persimmons and blot dry, using a knife to remove the calyx.

2. Divide the persimmon into quarter inch thick slices from top to bottom and arrange on a plate.

3. Spread a quarter-sized dollop of softened Brie to the persimmon slices, topping with an arugula leaf.

4. In a bowl, use a fork or small whisk to emulsify the balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Carefully drizzle onto the persimmon slices. Lightly sprinkle with salt and eat.

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