When I was little, the delivery of a package of persimmons signaled approach of the holidays. Our Japanese family friends sent us kaki each year, plucked straight from their backyard trees. The perfect little fruits arrived carefully wrapped in pretty paper, looking almost too lovely to eat. They made a stunning centerpiece before they disappeared, one by one.
Then and now, persimmons strike me as the edible embodiment of autumn, with (depending on the variety) a crispness between apple and pear or soft, custard-like texture, a floral, clove-like sweetness, and a color that matches the turning leaves. In season from October to February, they are used in baked goods, holiday puddings, salads, salsas, and more. I prefer them eaten just as they are as a snack or a simple dessert.
Two persimmon varieties are most common in the United States, and it's important to know the difference between the two before you take your first bite.
The Fuyu persimmon (top photo) resembles an orange tomato and can be eaten when slightly underripe and crisp, or when it yields to gentle pressure. Its mellow sweetness tastes wonderful when it's sliced and added to salads, or simply eaten alone, like an apple. My friend Yukari has a recipe for Sunomono of Persimmons and Daikon, a vinegared dish that's easy to make and a good element for a bento lunch.
The Hachiya is a little larger, elongated, with a slightly pointy bottom. It's not ripe until it's water-balloon soft, and then it is eaten by slicing off the top and spooning out the tender flesh, like pudding. (The Kyoto Foodie has great step-by-step photos of this.) Whatever you do, don't bite into a Hachiya that isn't ripe. It will make your mouth feel like a snail might feel after a salt shower. This persimmon's tannins are the source of its tongue-curling astringency, but they're broken down by the ripening process, and the fruit becomes sweet. In Japan, Hachiya are peeled, hung to dry, and massaged for a dried treat called hoshigaki.
Today, the packages of persimmons no longer arrive in the mail. But a few years ago, when my grandmother died, we found a pretty spot in the woods where she lived and planted a persimmon tree in her honor. It was a leafless little stump, so we folded white paper cranes to hang on its bare branches. After a few years of maturing, grandma's tree began bearing the lovely little fruits that are one of the ephemeral gifts of autumn. The persimmons in the top photo came from her tree.
Photos: Top, Kim Cross; Bottom, courtesy Anauxite on Flickr