I am a big fan of what many consider "exotic" fruit -- though nothing is terribly exotic considering that nowadays in New York City, we can find just about anything, from anywhere, if you now where to look. Perhaps it's better to say that some fruits are not yet "mainstream", or "everyday" fruits. Everyone knows what an orange, or a banana, or an apple looks like, tastes like. But the persimmon? There are a lot of people out there who are unsure what a persimmon even is (or if it's a fruit at all), much less how it tastes or how it's eaten. I'm here to declare that persimmons are great eating out-of-hand, but are also a wonderful ingredient in salads, in savory dishes, and for baking. It's worth getting to know these beauties. So, let's take a closer look at the versatile, brilliant persimmon, in season throughout late fall and into the winter.
There are two main categories of persimmons, generally speaking: hachiya and fuyu. The hachiya variety is acorn shaped, usually a deep or bright orange, and should only be eaten when ripe and soft (unripe, these guys are incredibly astringent and seem pretty, well, inedible, thanks to their high tannin content). The fuyu variety is more squat and round, can range in color from a pale orange or more golden hue to the bright orange of the hachiya variety, and can be eaten like an apple when it's more firm, even crisp, as it's much less astringent than the hachiya variety. Much like the tomato, persimmons are technically a berry in terms of botanical morphology, though most people don't lump them into the berry category with raspberries, blueberries and the like. (It's actually amazing how many foods are technicallyberries!) There is a third type cultivated in Japan, and prized for its rich brown flesh when ripe (instead of bright orange). "Chocolate persimmon" contains dark brown flesh within, the maru variety is sold as "cinnamon persimmon" for its spicy taste, and "brown sugar" is prized for its deep sweetness. A fourth variety, grown in Israel and known as the Sharon ("shah-RON") fruit, named after the Sharon plain in Israel, is the marketing name for the Triumphpersimmon, an Israeli-bred cultivar. This variety has no seeds, is very sweet, and can be eaten whole. In Valencia, Spain, one can find a variety that's variegated called the Spanish persimon (one "m"), in Spanish called Ribera del Xuquer or Rojo Brillante. In Italian and Japanese, the persimmon shares the same name: kaki (pronounced more or less "cocky").
As you can probably guess from their varietal names, the persimmon is of Asian origin, native to Japan, China, Korea, Burma, and Nepal. Cultivation of the persimmon extended throughout east and south Asia, and was later introduced to southern Europe and California (they have similar growing climates) in the early 1800s, and to Brazil by the end of the 19th century. In Korea, the matured fermented fruit are used to make a persimmon vinegar called gamsikcho(I'm now obsessed with the idea of this vinegar!), and for hundreds of years, the Japanese have consumed persimmon leaf tea made from the dried kaki leaves. In the northwestern U.S., persimmons are a commonly-found ingredient in pies and various desserts, like persimmon pudding (baked to the consistency of pumpkin pie, but resembles more of a brownie), almost surely topped with whipped cream. And Mitchell, Indiana is the proud home to an annual persimmon festival. As for nutritional value? Persimmons are high in dietary fiber and some dietary minerals, and offer a significant source of vitamin C and iron. They are also, when ripe, high in glucose (that sweetness comes at a cost), so make note.
Most importantly, how do we use the persimmon as a seasonal ingredient? I love baking with persimmons, in cakes and tarts in which the fruit holds its form and beautiful color, but I also love using its puree in cakes and cheesecakes, and frozen in ice cream or sorbet. You can whip up a great smoothie with persimmon flesh, and it's easy to transform into a jam or mostarda to spread on bread or to accompany a gorgeous cheese plate. But arguably the best way to enjoy the pure flavor of the persimmon flesh is to eat it out of hand -- or rather, by removing the green-brown stem of the fruit (if it's ripe, it should "unplug" to remove easily), and scooping out the tender, sweet flesh with a spoon. It's like a ready-made fruit custard.
Beyond utilizing the fruit to finish a meal, I also like to incorporate the persimmon into savory preparations, as a counterpoint to sharper bitter or salty flavors. it works marvelously well in seasonal salads, like this Tuscan kale, feta, and persimmon salad with pomegranate and sunflower seeds. Dressed with a white balsamic-pomegranate vinaigrette, this salad hits all flavor and texture notes and is a nutritional fall or winter salad to boot. Move over, avocado toast! Toasted bread with a shmear of fresh ricotta, sliced persimmon, and cracked pepper is insanely good. The fruit even works in highly-spiced dishes, like a curry or a spicy salsa dressing for fish or meat. I love it in a winer ceviche too. Really, it's all about using this seasonal ingredient however you enjoy it most. The important thing is to try it, get used to its flavor, and soon the "exotic" persimmon will become for you, as it is for me, an everyday winter food love affair!