Persimmon types and background
When browsing the produce section of your supermarket this autumn, you may be lucky enough to find what looks like an under-ripe orange tomato with an odd brown stem. This oddity is not a tomato at all but is actually a persimmon, a wonderfully unique sweet fruit. Persimmons vary in color from a light to a red orange and are shaped either like a tomato or an acorn with a pointed bottom. The aromatic flavor of a persimmon is very delicate and is similar to an extremely sweet apricot.
There are over two hundred different species of persimmons but the two main ones are the native/common species ( Diospyros (Greek for food of the gods) virginiana (for the state of Virginia)) and the Oriental species (D. kaki (the Japanese word for persimmon)). Native persimmons are indigenous to the Eastern United States and grow wild from New England to Florida and Texas. Early American settlers ate the fruit, used them in bread, and distilled them to make a fruity wine. The Oriental species of persimmon is native to China and orchards have spread to Korea and Japan. Persimmons are extremely popular in these Asian countries. The Japanese consider the persimmon their national fruit and traditionally eat them on the Japanese New Year. Oriental persimmons were introduced to California in the 1800s and that state remains the main producer of Oriental persimmons in the United States. Native persimmon fruits tend to be smaller, seedier, and have a more astringent flavor while Oriental fruits tend to be larger and have a higher quality taste.
Native and Oriental varieties of persimmons are further categorized as either "astringent" or "nonastringent" depending on the amount of tannins in the fruit. Astringent fruits contain a higher level of tannins and will be very bitter if eaten when under-ripe. If the fruits are ripened to the point of being soft as jelly then the tannins disappear and the fruit is sweet. Captain John Smith of the early American settlers must have eaten an unripe astringent persimmon before proclaiming "If it not be ripe it will draw a man's mouth awire with much torment. But when it is ripe, it is as delicious as an apricot." Nonastringent fruits have a lower level of tannins and can be eaten when they are slightly unripe and still crisp like an apple. Both astringent and nonastringent persimmons are commonly sold today.
(gn0sis informs me that persimmons are called "sharons" in Europe after the variety that is imported there from Israel.)
The persimmon tree is deciduous and goes into dormancy during the winter months. The trees are very attractive and are often used as an ornamental tree. Tiny persimmon trees are commonly used in Bonsai. Oriental species are smaller, between 20-30 feet tall, while native trees grow to be 30-60 feet. Native trees are more tolerant to cold temperatures and are grown in areas that have harsher winters. The trees produce flowers during spring. Native persimmon trees produce either male or female flowers while Oriental persimmon trees produce both on the same tree. After pollination, the flowers develop into clusters of fruits that are generally harvested after the first frost in autumn. Fruits are picked while still firm to prevent spoilage on the way to the grocer.
Purchasing and using persimmons
Persimmons can be found in most supermarkets in North America between the months of September and December. The Oriental species of persimmon is the main type sold in the United States. This species has many varieties but two kinds are predominantly found in stores. The first, Hachiya, is the most popular and looks like an acorn with a pointed bottom. It is bright orange and astringent, so it must be fully ripened before eating. The other type, Fuyu, is less common but becoming more popular. It is also orange but has a flat bottom and looks more like a normal tomato. It is nonastringent and can be eaten when it is still firm.
Try to buy fruits that are slightly soft to the touch but not mushy. If this is not possible, firm fruits will soften when kept at room temperature for several days. Look for fruits that are uniformly orange, as yellow fruits will not ripen as well. Fuyu fruits do not need to be ripened and can be eaten while firm, but I think the flavor improves when the fruits ripen to the point of being slightly soft. Once ripe, store the persimmon in the fridge and use quickly. Ripe fruits can also be frozen to use later in baked goods or fruit drinks. The entire persimmon can be eaten, including the skin and inner fibers. However, some varieties of Fuyu contain black seeds that are inedible. The thin, plum-like skins can be peeled if you don't want to eat the skin. Persimmons can also be quickly blanched in boiling water to easily remove the skin, a technique also used to remove the skin from tomatoes and peaches.
Persimmons have a large amount of vitamin C, beta-carotene, and potassium. They can be served raw alone or mixed into fruit salads. They also bake well and are often incorporated into quick breads, muffins, and puddings. Persimmons can also be dried to preserve them. Drying also removes the tannins from unripe astringent fruits, leaving them especially sweet like dried pineapple or mango. Dried persimmons may be sold in stores as "date-plums."
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