Persimmons, the Apples of Asia
Diospyros, which translates roughly as ‘fruit of the gods’ in Greek, was a worthy choice as the botanical name for persimmon trees. The fruit has the perfect combination of crispness and juiciness. It’s sweet, but not cloyingly so, leaving a bright, clean aftertaste on the palate.
Persimmons come in an astonishing number of unique varieties, ranging from yellow to nearly maroon. There are acorn-shaped persimmons, round varieties, boxy ones and some that look like apples. In fact, there are more than 1,000 varieties in the Asian cornucopia.
Like apples, the tremendous diversity of heirloom persimmons has been boiled down to a few standards that are found on grocery store shelves today. But unlike apples, you can’t just go choosing them willy-nilly. Picking persimmons, from a tree or from a grocery store shelf, requires a bit of education.
There are two broad types of persimmons: astringent and non-astringent. The latter can be enjoyed when crisp like an apple or a bit soft, but still firm, like a peach. However, the astringent varieties make your lips pucker like a mouthful of chalk unless they are allowed to become completely soft. Not soft like a raspberry — soft like Jell-O. When perfectly ripe, the skin of astringent varieties becomes a bag that holds the marmalade-like pulp inside. Then, and only then, do they live up to their divine name.
In North America and Europe, there is generally just one astringent and one non-astringent variety readily available; fortunately, it’s easy to differentiate between the two. The astringent variety is shaped like an acorn with a pointed tip at the bottom and is usually labeled ‘Hachiya.’ The non-astringent types are usually labeled ‘Fuyu’ (or sometimes Sharon fruit, if they’re grown in Israel) and are shaped like a flattened tomato with a dimple at the bottom. Despite their textural differences, fuyus and hachiyas have a similar flavor once ripe.
But if you dig past the simplified grocery store dichotomy of persimmon varieties and dive into the full Diospryos gene pool, there is a spice cabinet of flavor to explore. Persimmon connoisseurs speak of the fruit as a sommelier does wine—notes of apricot with a bit of clove, for example, or thick and dusky with a hint of melon.
Revered heirloom varieties like ‘Maru’ and ‘Hyakume’ are grown mainly by artisanal orchardists in California. Lucky farmers market shoppers may stumble across these or other non-hachiya, non-fuyu varieties labeled generically as chocolate or cinnamon persimmons, a reference in part to the subtle spicy notes embedded in the flesh. It’s also a reference to the flecks of brown that dot the insides of these varieties, a cosmetic issue that has tainted their consumer appeal. For the initiated, the brown color is a sign of mouth-watering flavor—but for the uninitiated, it looks to be a sign of rot.
Getting to know heirloom persimmons means getting to know the degrees of astringency for each one. All hachiyas are astringent, but all pointy persimmons are not necessarily astringent. In the case of the so-called chocolate persimmons, the brown color of the flesh indicates ripeness, but on others, it’s a shot in the dark until you try it.
Fresh and fully ripe persimmons are usually eaten out of hand, though their sweet neutral flavor works in many other culinary contexts, from salads to smoothies. The super-gelatinous types can be spread on top of desserts like syrup.
But using them fresh only scratches the surface of the possibilities for persimmon-based cuisine. They are one of the best fruits for baking with and in Japan hoshigaki—sundried persimmons with a whitish powdery coating of naturally-occurring persimmon sugar—are considered a delicacy. Making hoshigaki the traditional way involves a carefully executed protocol, including massaging the fruit by hand to bring out the sugars, but slicing crisp persimmons and drying them in a modern dehydrator is also effective.
Any type of processing—baking, drying or freezing—relieves the astringent varieties of their mouth-puckering tannins and brings out the sweetness. Large-scale growers treat them with ethylene gas before shipping to neutralize the astringency (Sharon fruit is actually an astringent variety that is artificially sweetened in this manner). At home you can use the naturally occurring ethylene gas emitted from ripening apples or bananas—simply place the persimmons in a paper bag with one of these fruits for a few days.
Now that you’ve learned the basics on this fruit of the gods, get yourself to the store or farmers market, grab a handful and prepare to enter persimmon heaven. Just be sure they’re ripe before you take the first bite.