The persimmon (kaki) tree is one of the best-loved plants in Japan. The leaves are dried and made into a tea that’s rich in vitamin C, various B vitamins and potassium, as well as used as a wrapper for a traditional type of sushi, the kaki-no-ha variety. The slow-growing, hard lumber is used to make furniture and decorative items, and a brown liquid extracted from unripe fruit called kakishibu is used as a wood stain and sealant, as well as for medicinal purposes. But above all, the bright orange fruits are a most welcome sight at this time of year.
Persimmon fruits are packed with vitamins A and C, potassium and fiber, and have even been used as a hangover cure. One of the best-known haiku is about eating persimmons — Shiki Masaoka’s “I bite into a persimmon / ringing bells / Horyu-ji (Kaki kueba / kane ga naru naru / Hōryū-ji), juxtaposing the sensation of biting into a ripe persimmon with the solemn sound of the bells at the famous Buddhist temple in Nara in the autumn.
Persimmon fruit have been eaten in Japan for thousands of years. The 1,000 or so persimmon varieties known to exist today are divided into three types: sweet (amagaki), tannic (shibugaki), and not quite sweet (fukanzen amagaki). Of these, the sweet type, which can be eaten as is even when crisp and not quite fully ripe, is the most popular. There are only about 20 varieties of amagaki, and the most popular one, fuyū, accounts for a quarter of Japan’s entire persimmon production. Another widely available amagaki variety is the jirō.
Shibugaki tannic persimmons (hachiya is one such variety) must be either fully ripe and soft, or treated to remove a substance called shibuol (kakishibu) that’s responsible for their mouth-puckering bitterness. This is usually either accomplished by drying the fruit or treating it with alcohol. Shibugaki have traditionally been sold mainly in dried form or as paste, since the fully ripe, jelly-like fruit have not been very popular until recent times. (The not-quite-sweet type of persimmons are not seen a lot on the market since fruit from the same tree may be sweet or bitter, but homegrown fruit may be of this type.)
Most fresh persimmon fruit for sale are of the ready-to-eat sweet type, which as mentioned earlier can be eaten even when they’re slightly underripe. If you happen to get some of the tannic type of fruit from someone’s tree, for instance, that haven’t been de-bittered, you can simply let them fully ripen by putting them in a paper bag with an apple, until the persimmons are very soft and yielding. The ethylene gas emitted by the apple will help to ripen the persimmons faster.
Another way to remove the bitter shibuol is to use high-alcohol spirits such as shōchū or brandy. Wash and carefully dry the fruit, dot the calyxes with alcohol-soaked cotton swabs, and seal the fruit in a plastic bag. Keep in a cool, dark place for one to two weeks until the fruit are sweet. My favorite way to eat fully ripe bitter-type persimmons is to freeze them — they turn into a delicious persimmon sorbet.
The sweet type of persimmons are much more useful in the kitchen, however. They are fully ripe when they yield slightly to pressure. A traditional recipe that uses persimmons is namasu, where finely shredded daikon radish and persimmon are combined and flavored with a sweet vinegar sauce. I like to use them in nontraditional recipes too, especially salads. The ideal persimmons to use in salads should still be firm enough to cut up easily.
Persimmon and avocado salad
Serves 2 to 4 . The textures of persimmon and avocado go really well together. Try using yuzu instead of the lemon, too.
2 medium ripe, firm sweet-type persimmons such as fuyū or jirō
Peel of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
¼ teaspoon mustard powder
½ teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper
Mixed salad greens of your choice (optional)
Peel, de-pit and cut the avocado into bite-size cubes. Sprinkle with about 1 teaspoon of the lemon juice. Peel the persimmons if the skin is tough, and cut into cubes that are about the same size as the avocado. Cut off thin strips of the zest of the lemon.
Combine the rest of the lemon juice, olive oil, mustard powder and salt in a small bowl. Mix well with a whisk or chopsticks.
Gently toss the persimmon and avocado cubes with this dressing..
Line a salad bowl or plate with greens of your choice, and arrange the persimmon and avocado cubes on top. Pour over any remaining dressing. Top with plenty of freshly ground black pepper, and garnish with the lemon zest and a little parsley. Toss gently before serving.