The Setting Sun of Autumn: Persimmons in Japan
As October deepens the nights become longer and colder. Even in the morning the light is the color of weak tea, and the sunsets become more melancholic. It’s the time of year where the world begins its last push of color before the muted shades of winter take hold.
October is the time of apples and pumpkins, gourds and sweet potatoes. Yet oft overlooked is the humble persimmon. In Japan this fruit holds an important place in history and culture. Not only has this fruit long been a seasonal icon, included in poetry and artwork, it is an important ingredient and natural material.
In Japan persimmons were first written about in the 8th century, at that time the fruit was considered a luxury good for the aristocrats. By the 17th century persimmons became a fruit for the common folk due to increased cultivation and uses. Two varieties exist: the astringent persimmons and sweet persimmons. The sweet are eaten fresh, peeled and quartered just like apples. They can also be included in other types of sweet and savory dishes, including persimmon shira-ae, or fresh pickles.
Astringent persimmons must be dried or processed to become edible. Hoshigaki, or dried persimmons are one of the most popular methods, being pealed and strung out to dry in the open air. Sunlight and wind are all that is needed, so mountainous regions of Japan, such as Gifu Prefecture, are ideal spots for processing.
In addition to the fruit, the leaves and wood to the tree have been used in Japan for centuries. The high tannin content of the leaves prevents the growth of bacteria, and is thereby used as a preserver. Wrapping fish in persimmon leaves developed as a practice to keep fish fresh. Also of use are unripe persimmons. When crushed and their juices fermented, they produce kakishibu. a liquid used to waterproof, insect proof, strengthen and dye paper. Some work is also being done about the medicinal effect of persimmons and kakishibu on the body. It’s an old saying in Japan that a persimmon wards off a cold—and modern science may prove that right.
Not just for eating, aesthetically you find persimmons in paintings, ceramics, and even poetry. In fact one of the most famous haiku in Japan feature this fruit.
As I eat a persimmon
The bell starts ringing
At Horyuji Temple
Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902)
(Read more about this poem here)
Be sure to keep an eye out for these gems in the super market or Asian Grocery stores. If you are lucky a neighbor may even have a tree. Regardless, persimmons trees set off against an autumn sky is one of the most beautiful sights of the season.