The slow art of preserving persimmons

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Calling the hachiya persimmon a difficult fruit is being generous. Its bright orange flesh looks luscious and inviting, but if you bite into one before its prime, it’s like eating an unripe, green banana. I learned this lesson the hard way when I bit into a hachiya that was still hard. My mouth felt like it was coated with chalky sandpaper.

There are two main types of persimmons: the fuyu and the hachiya. The fuyu is squat and looks like a tomato. If you’ve eaten a persimmon from the store, it was probably a fuyu. It has a sweet, tangy flavor and can be eaten while still hard.

Then there’s the hachiya. These acorn-shaped persimmons are so astringent that if consumed too early, many unknowing eaters are shocked when they bite into the unripe fruit for the first time. The hachiya must be allowed to soften until it has a jam-like consistency, or you will offend your mouth and your tastebuds.

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Hachiya persimmons. (Photo by Robert Couse-Baker) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

My parents moved to a home a few years ago with a beautiful, mature hachiya persimmon tree in the backyard. In autumn, the greenish, acorn-shaped orbs fade to pumpkin orange. In Japan, the ripening of the hachiya is a signal that fall has arrived. But the first year with this tree, I had no idea what the fruits were. I coughed and choked on a few unripe ones until I learned they had to be the consistency of gelatinous pudding before the astringency disappears. The taste transforms into a sweet gooey nectar. A colleague gave me a recipe for a steamed pudding , and I learned you could use the pulp as a substitute for pumpkin in recipes. I baked. I steamed. I even made persimmon vinegar . I devoured the ripe ones over a sink and drove trunk loads back to Los Angeles to give to friends and coworkers. Still, I was overwhelmed. The tree bears hundreds, possibly thousands, of mango-colored orbs each season. By the end of the year, the tree is dotted with squirrel- and bird-pecked fruit carcasses.

Writer and chef Sonoko Sakai and I met during a pizza-making class in Pasadena. As we learned to make sourdough dough, I found out she also taught food workshops. I eventually produced a story about her love for soba noodles. I told her of our persimmon tree and brought her some of the bounty. She had recently begun teaching the traditional Japanese method for drying persimmons to Angelenos. I learned how to peel, cut, hang and massage the fruit to make what the Japanese call hoshigaki .

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After nearly a month of massaging, the hoshigaki are almost ready. (Photo by Tahlee Booher-Scarpitti) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Persimmon trees are originally from China, but they have also long been part of Korean and Japanese cultures. Asian immigrants brought over the trees to California and you can find them in unexpected places, like my parent’s front yard in Fresno and Sakai’s friend’s home in Topanga Canyon. I’ve heard them called “the cabbage of fruit trees” because their harvest is endless and plentiful.

Unlike raisins and prunes, the process of drying persimmons is, as Sakai calls it, “the Kobe beef of dried fruit” because you have to gently squeeze the fruit every day for about a month. The fruit is then peeled and hung to dry in the sun. As the persimmons dry, they shrivel and transform into a deep maroon color dusted with what looks like white mold. But it’s not. It’s fructose being coaxed to the surface through massaging. In Japan, you can pay up to $15 for a single hoshigaki .

Drying shìbǐng in Xinpu, Taiwan. (Photo by Billy1125) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

In California, drying hachiya persimmons has become part of the culture. Slow Food USA’s Arc of Taste has listed them as a traditional food that is at risk of its cultural practice being lost. There are even a few hachiya persimmon producers in the state including Penryn Orchard Specialties and Otow Orchard.

There are also dried versions of the fuyu persimmon. Both the Korean gotgam and the Chinese shìbǐng are made with fuyus that are dried in baskets but not massaged. Like the hoshigaki, these fruits “bloom” with the fructose. Because of their red, fiery color, dried persimmons are a popular gift during Asian New Year celebrations because they symbolize good luck and prosperity for the coming year. You can find all three versions of dried persimmons in Asian markets in the US this time of year.

Photo of hoshigaki (top) by Tahlee Booher-Scarpitti.

This project made possible with support from KCRW’s Independent Producer Project.