In praise of the persimmon

By Vicki L Beyer

Whether astringent I do not know. This is my first Persimmon picking. Chiyojo

One of my most vivid memories from my first autumn in Tokyo is of a persimmon tree in my neighborhood that I walked past every morning on my way to the bus stop. Being from the American Midwest, I had never before seen a persimmon tree and didn't even know what it was at first. When I first saw the tree's branches arching over a wall and toward the street, its fruit was still small and green. As autumn deepened, the fruit matured into plump orange balls. Even as the leaves changed and dropped, the fruit hung in there, adorning the bare branches like Christmas bulbs.

When the fruit first appeared in stores that autumn, bottoms up in packets of four, I was mystified. Was this some strange variety of orange tomato? Finally, a friend introduced me to the delights of the fruit. Initially, however, persimmons seemed a fruit with very limited potential. It was only available for a brief period and didn't seem that it could be juiced, cooked or canned. Being a farm girl and used to putting up produce for the winter, this struck me as a definite drawback.

I’m told that in those parts of the U.S. where it grows, the persimmon tree is regarded as ornamental and the fruit is rarely eaten. Perhaps it is of the astringent variety. Certainly the tree is ornamental, especially in early winter when the brilliant colors of the autumn leaves have gone and the orange fruit on bare branches takes center stage. Their presence in so much Japanese art testifies that I'm not the only one to think so.

But it's only after living for years with a view of a persimmon tree from my bedroom window and observing the life cycle of the fruit that I have truly come to appreciate it. As Indian summer turns to autumn and the nights cool, the fruit begins to turn from green to orange. Then the leaves turn from green to gold and the fruit is temporarily camouflaged, to show itself again as the leaves drop from the tree. Finally the bright orange fruit is left alone on the bare branches. If it isn’t picked, much of it hangs on the tree impossibly long (from my Midwestern perspective) becoming welcome winter feeding for small birds. Watching this cycle, the seasonal availability of the fruit becomes part of its allure.

While in the city we usually experience persimmons only as fresh fruit in the supermarket or on our tables -- and occasionally on the branches of neighborhood trees -- in rural areas, the presence of persimmons is a distinct harbinger of winter. In some areas, strings of persimmons hang from the eaves of houses to dry, once again proving the fruit is both practical and ornamental. Historically, the dried fruit was important to the winter diet in inland areas where the mikan doesn’t grow. In some country homes, I have found dried persimmon to be as ubiquitous as dried mango in the Philippines.

One twist on getting full use of the fruit is the persimmon-flavored sake we found at a small brewery on Sado Island. Apparently astringent persimmons sweeten if sprinkled with shochu.

I've learned that if you want to bake using persimmons — for example to flavor cookies or cakes, you need to add a teaspoon of baking soda to the pulped fruit. But you’ve got to work quickly as the soda will cause the persimmon pulp to congeal if you leave it sit too long.

Even with so many alternative uses of persimmon, in the end eating the fresh fruit, peeled and cut into quarters, has proven to be one of life's simple pleasures. It is, for me, a food to be savored once a year as autumn slowly turns to winter.

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Thank you for the article. It took me a while to appreciate the crunchy crispness and mild sweetness of a persimmon. It is a delicious and beautiful fruit.

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I love persimmons, I've also never tried it before coming to Japan, but now it's one of my favorites

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It seems to me that an article singing the praise of Kaki and doesn't mention Kaki-shibu, persimon tannin juice (see it actually can be juiced) , is somewhat lacking.

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Not too many people know about perssimons at the local markets-We go to Mitsuwa & buy them every year!

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