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Although a popular decoration on holiday tables, the unique flavour of the persimmon has been alternately described as a combination of apricots, plums and pumpkins.
The ancient Greeks named the persimmon “the fruit of the gods”. Originally the fruit of the persimmon tree was cultivated in China, Japan and Vietnam before being introduced to America in the mid-19th century.
The name “persimmon” originates from the words putchamin, pasiminan, or pessamin, meaning “dry fruit” in the native American Powhatan language.
Two different types of persimmon are available commercially. The Hachiya persimmon is the most common astringent variety, containing high levels of tannins which make it inedible prior to ripening.
Hachiya persimmon should be deep orange when purchased, with a firm skin. Sometimes the fruit may have black spots caused by the sun, or scarring from brushing against tree branches during harvesting.
This does not change the quality of the fruit, but Hachiya with sunken flesh under the spots or torn skin should be avoided. Ripe Hachiya feel soft and squishy, and should be kept in the refrigerator and handled carefully to avoid bruising. They will ripen within seven days when stored at room temperature.
To speed up ripening place the persimmon in a paper bag with an apple or banana for a few days, or place the fruit in a deep freezer for 24 hours – it will be ready for use when defrosted. Hachiya should be used within a few days after ripening.
The Fuyu makes up eighty percent of the world’s persimmon market. It is the less astringent persimmon, losing more of its tannin than the Hachiya before ripening. Fuyu persimmons are a yellow orange colour, and should be firm when purchased.
Despite their hard, firm appearance they bruise easily, and should be handled carefully. Fuyu can be consumed while still firm, and may be stored for two to three weeks at room temperature before use. A few drops of lime enhances the Fuyu’s flavour.
A third, less common persimmon variety is the Tsurunoko, or “Chocolate Persimmon”, named for its brown flesh. This non-astringent persimmon can be eaten firm, and may be found at speciality markets. It is highly sought after in Japan.
Other exotic persimmon varieties include the reddish-orange Giant Fuyu, the spicy Maru or “cinnamon persimmon” and the “Brown sugar” Hyakume persimmon, with its pale yellow to orange skin.
How to Eat Persimmon Fruit
Persimmons can be eaten fresh, dried or cooked. When eaten fresh the skin is usually removed, and the fruit cut into four slices. The unique texture ranges from crunchy – like an apple – to mushy.
In China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam the fruit is hand-dried after harvesting, and eaten as a snack, dessert or in cooking. Korea’s traditional spicy punch drink sujeonggwa is made from dried persimmon.
The persimmon has an established place in American cuisine. The fruit is used in baking, desserts, sauces and salads. It can be added to breakfast cereal and stir fries. Persimmon pudding is a baked pudding resembling a brownie and topped with whipped cream.
Because baking with persimmon can reintroduce tannin it is recommended a pinch of baking soda be added to a recipe as a preventative. A little citrus juice will stop persimmons from darkening during baking.
Medicinal Benefits of Persimmon
Some persimmon varieties contain the tannin catechin, said to reduce the risk of strokes, heart failure, cancer and diabetes, and the antioxidant gallocatechin. These varieties are also a source of the anti-tumour compound betulinic acid.
Ripe persimmons contain high levels of glucose and nutrients such as beta-carotene, Vitamin C and potassium.
Traditionally the raw fruit is used to stop bleeding and treat constipation, so it is not advisable to eat too many fruit because they can induce diarrhea.
Conversely, cooked persimmon is used to treat dysentery and diarrhea – this is because the sugar in the raw fruit can cause diarrhea, while the tannin in cooked persimmon is a preventive for this condition.
The persimmon tree belongs to the same family as the ebony. Persimmon wood is used in panelling and in traditional Japanese and Korean furniture. In North America it is used to manufacture billiard cues and shuttles and bobbins for the textile industry, as well as longbows and musical flutes.
Persimmon was the original wood used to make “woods” on golf clubs. Today most golf woods are metal, although some persimmon woods are still produced. Persimmon wood is used to make wooden spoons and cornbread knives – wooden knives designed to slice bread without scarring the dish.
According to popular legend the seeds of the persimmon fruit contain an accurate indication of the forthcoming winter. When sliced open the seeds supposedly contain a shape resembling one of three food utensils.
A knife shape forecasts a cold icy winter, with winds strong enough to slice through a person like a knife. A spoon shape predicts plenty of snow to shovel, while a fork shape means winter will be mild.