Persimmon, "Food of the Gods"
Those settlers found persimmons inedible until the Native Americans told them the fruit would not be ready to eat until the first frost. The settlers assumed this meant the frost was necessary to improve the taste, but the natives meant the fruit should be left on the tree well into October when it was ripe enough to eat.
The persimmon native to North America is Diospyros virginiana that the Algonquin Indians called putchamin, pasiminan, or pessamin, depending on the dialect of the tribe. This persimmon was small, seedy and had an unpleasant taste when eaten before it was ripe. This astringent quality is caused by tannin present in the fruit when it is not completely ripe. Diospyros virginiana was quite different from the persimmons we see in the markets today. It was the size of a grape and had to be left on the tree into the winter.
Growing wild, it varied in quality from tree to tree. Hernando de Soto and his conquistadors found the Native Americans eating bread made from what they called "prunes." The loaves they were fed were formed from dried persimmons.
The settlers of Jamestown described persimmons as "very sweet and pleasant to the taste, and yields on distillation, after fermentation, a quality of spirits." When Captain John Smith was not busy with Pocahontas, he is quoted as saying, "If it be not ripe it will drawe a mans mouth awrie with much torment; but when it is ripe, it is as delicious as an Apricock."
When Commodore Matthew Perry opened Japan to the West in 1855 he changed the persimmon scene forever. One little known sidelight of his journey was the return to the United States with persimmon trees that were planted in Washington, D.C.
Any Greek will tell you that diospyros means "food of the gods." What he may not tell you is that diospyros is also the botanical name for persimmon. In Japan, where the persimmon is very popular, the word you will hear for this fruit is kaki. A botanist in this country will use the phrase Diospyros kaki when he is speaking about the Japanese persimmon.
The Japanese persimmon that has become the dominant variety sold in the United States did not originate in Japan. It is a native of China but was introduced to Japan at an early date and has become the national fruit and one of the traditional foods for the Japanese New Year. Sometime in the mid 1800s the first persimmon cultivar arrived in California. A sub-tropical plant, the persimmon grows well California and the Southeastern United States.
There are hundreds of varieties of persimmon, but two types are commercially available. The Hachiya dominates with about 90% of the market. It is an astringent fruit, bright orange in color, and shaped like a large, slightly elongated tomato that almost comes to a point at the bottom. Hachiyas must be fully ripe to be enjoyed. Fully ripe means a mushy, intense orange, jelly-like texture that is a turnoff for many people. The taste is compared to that of an overly sweet apricot with a smooth, slippery texture.
The Fuyu, also bright orange in color, is a non-astringent variety slowly gaining in popularity. It is eaten when firm, just like an apple, shiny skin and all. You can recognize a Fuyu by its squat shape and flat bottom, close to the appearance of a medium-sized tomato.
NUTRITION: Comparing the nutritional data for both the Fuyu and the Hachiya, also known as native persimmons, is challenging because the Hachiya has not been tested as extensively as the Fuyu.
The firm, crunchy Fuyu contains 118 calories with 31 grams carbohydrates compared to the 32 calories and 8 grams carbohydrates contained in the Hachiya. While there are no fiber figures available on the USDA National Nutritient Database for the Hachiya, the Fuyu can boast 6 grams.
The two varieties seem to be nutritional opposites with some of the data. One example cites the Hachiya with 16.5 mg of Vitamin C, while the Fuyu contains 12.6 mg. Another opposite is the potassium content of the Fuyu with 270 mg, while the Hachiya contains only 78 mg. Though calcium is not one of the fruit's strong points, the Fuyu contains 13 mg and the Hachiya has only 7 mg. On the protein scale, Fuyus contain 1 gram compared to .20 grams for the Hachiya.
Fuyu persimmons contain a whopping 2733 IU of Vitamin A and 425 mcg of beta carotene. Unfortunately, there are no Vitamin A figures available for the Hachiya. However, if color is any indication of the presence of beta carotene, the Hachiya's bright orange color would indicate its availability. Other antioxidant values in the Fuyu feature 2431 mcg of cryptoxanthin beta, 267 mcg of lycopene, and 1401 mg of lutein and zeaxanthin. No antioxidant values are available for the Hachiya.
The Fuyu contains a good profile of B vitamins, while figures for the B vitamins are unavailable for the Hachiya.
SHOPPING: Some persimmons will begin to appear in the markets in late September, but November and December are when they're most plentiful. In some areas availability may even stretch into January.
Because the Hachiya variety is so delicate in its ripe state, it is picked and shipped to market while still hard and unripe. A persimmon whose color is bright orange all over will ripen more successfully than those with yellow patches, which indicate they were picked before maturity. Some markets will have ripe ones on hand. We prefer to purchase our persimmons quite firm in order to monitor their ripening carefully. Allow them to ripen at room temperature, a process that may take up to a week to reach a completely soft state. Patience pays off, providing a fruit with unmatchable sweetness that some liken to ambrosia.
Fuyu persimmons should be purchased when very firm. Enjoy them as they are, crunchy and sweet, or allow them to soften a bit at room temperature. There are several varieties of Fuyu, some have sizeable black seeds inside while others are seedless. The especially tasty Gosho variety with its redish orange color and black seeds seems to turn up at farmers' markets.
STORAGE: Once ripe, Hachiya persimmons don't keep well. They should be eaten right away or refrigerated for no more than a day or two. If you're waiting for several persimmons to ripen at once to make that seasonal favorite, persimmon pudding, you'll discover persimmons have a mind of their own, each one choosing a different time to ripen. Simply spoon out the flesh of each persimmon as it ripens, and store it in the freezer in an airtight container until you have the required amount.
Lengthen the short persimmon season by storing firm Hachiyas up to one month in the refrigerator before setting them out at room temperature to ripen. To enjoy them out of season, freeze them for six months before ripening.
DRYING: Ripe persimmons can be sliced, peeled or unpeeled, and oven-dried or dried in a dehydrator. Unripe, firm Hachiyas can be peeled and dried whole, a process that helps them to lose all their astringency and develop a sweet, softened texture.
RAW: To enjoy the best of flavor, eat both varieties of persimmons fresh as soon as they are ripe. Their flavors are sweet, rich, and satisfying. Cut them into quarters and serve them for breakfast.
The Fuyu variety can be diced and added to fruit or vegetable salads.
Hachiyas do well in the blender with some soy milk or soft silken tofu and a dash of cinnamon to make a delicious smoothie.
BAKED: Ripe Hachiya persimmons add rich flavor and moistness to baked cakes, cookies, muffins, quick breads, and steamed puddings.
Add mashed Hachiyas to pancake or waffle batter.
This unique fruit combination is one of the sugarplums of the autumn season. It's so rich in colors and flavors, you can serve it often as a meal accompaniment throughout the holidays.
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
Combine all the ingredients in a large, attractive serving bowl and toss to distribute evenly. This fruit dish can be made several hours ahead.
Note: Later in the season when cranberries are available, you can add 2 cups (480 ml) of fresh cranberries, pulse chopped in the food processor. Add these shortly before serving to avoid loss of flavor.