Many years ago, as I was getting ready to return to college after winter break, my mother decided to stuff several Ziplock bags carefully marked with the date and the Chinese character shizi into my luggage. “Fresh!” she said. “A co-worker brought a bunch in from their tree. Turns out the English name is persimmon.”
I grew up eating many unusual but delectable foods, many of which I’m still slowly translating into English as I stumble through markets, or in this case the bounty of a California yard, recapturing flavors from childhood. Outside of home, I’ve noticed persimmons on the menus of high-end restaurants paired with poultry, chutneys, desserts and salad for seasonal flair. Personally, I can never get further than just gobbling them up raw, which is why I eagerly await their fall debut in the produce section.
It is easy to remember that persimmons are in season around mid-October because the Fuyu variety looks like a small pumpkin. Squat with a flat bottom and smooth orange skin, it is ripe either hard or softened. The taste is light, sweet and crisp with a flavor that reminds me of green fig, white peach and Bosch pear.
The Hachiya is the second main variety of persimmon that can be found in specialty markets. Easily distinguished by its tomato-like pointed bottom heart shape, the Hachiya must be very ripe before consuming! Be warned, eating an unripe Hachiya is an unforgettable experience. Unlike the Fuyu, it is so astringent it feels like your mouth has turned inside out, chalky and “furry” because it has high levels of tannins that coagulate proteins in your saliva (but it’s a good opportunity for a practical joke).
Most Hachiya are not ripe at the store so pick fruits that have rich color and check that the skins are unbroken. Leave them on the counter or in a paper bag until the skin starts to wrinkle and gets very soft, almost like a water balloon. It is worth the wait because it is much sweeter than the Fuyu with a jelly consistency and a flavor that reminds me of apricot, mango, plum and honey.
Wash and remove the stem as you would a tomato. The skin is edible, similar to an apple’s skin. I like to cut the Fuyu into wedges and then peel each wedge, but the Hachiya can be cut in half and spooned or sucked out. Occasionally there are hard brown seeds to watch out for.
There are many recipes, sweet and savory, for persimmons. Use the crisper Fuyu as you would a pear or apple in salads, curries, baking or simply dried. The pudding texture of Hachiya is excellent puréed in baked or frozen desserts, jam and drinks.
If you have always wondered what lies below the skin of these usual pumpkin-tomato looking fruits, pick up a few to try and then tell us what you think! Or if you eat and cook with persimmons every fall, let us know how you like to use them.