“Persimmons look and taste like the fall season,” says Rachel Sullivan, the farm assistant at Frog Hollow Farm, a Brentwood, California, farm currently in the middle of its annual persimmon harvest. Seeing Frog Hollow’s orchards change color and the fruit turn “bright orange,” she says, “is the perfect welcome to fall.”
In various parts of the world, particularly Asia, nothing welcomes the harvest season quite like a luscious persimmon, a fruit long prized for its jammy texture and honeyed flavor. But here in the United States, persimmons haven’t attained quite the same instant association with fall, taking a distant back seat to pumpkins and other members of the gourd family. And that’s a shame, because they happen to be some of the best seasonal eating known to humankind. So without further ado, let’s take a closer look at autumn’s sweetest treat.
What are persimmons?
They don’t necessarily look the part, but persimmons are technically berries by definition. They come in various shapes and sizes, but their overall appearance can be likened to waxy, warm-toned tomatoes. Their coloring exists on a broad spectrum, from yellows to darker red-oranges and even brown or black in some species.
While the word persimmon actually comes from the Algonquin word pessamin, the fruit is believed to have originated in China, where it was first harvested over 2,000 years ago. The species was eventually introduced to Japan and Korea in the seventh and 14th centuries, respectively. Today, these three countries are the world’s largest persimmon producers, with the fruit playing an important role in their fall harvest celebrations.
If you’re exploring the delicious world of persimmons for the first time, the main thing you’ll notice is that they’re typically grouped as either astringent or non-astringent. We’ll explore the differences between the two later, but note that this classification reflects the fruit’s flavor profile, texture, and timeline for when you can eat it. In other words, if it’s astringent and unripened, you might want to wait a few days (or weeks) before digging in.
Where do persimmons grow?
Persimmons grow on trees from the Diospyros genus, which includes over 500 species of both evergreen and deciduous trees. Diospyros kaki is the most commonly cultivated fruit-bearing tree today and is the same cultivar that originated in China over two millennia ago. This species can grow up to 40 feet in height and has deciduous leaves that change colors once fall rolls around, along with its persimmon fruit that also ripens into hues of yellow, orange, and red. Diospyros kaki grows throughout Asia and parts of northern India, as well as parts of southern Europe and the Middle East. Another related persimmon species, Diospyros virginiana, or the American persimmon, is native to the United States. It grows along the East Coast and in states further west, including Texas, Oklahoma, and Iowa, and bears fruit smaller than the Asian persimmon.
How many kinds of persimmons are there?
As mentioned, there are several variations of persimmons that differ in size, flavor, and, of course, color. In the United States, the two you’ll most commonly find in supermarkets are the Asian varieties known as fuyu and hachiya. You might also hear them referred to as Japanese persimmons, Chinese persimmons, or kaki persimmons due to their association with the Diospyros kaki tree.
The fuyu is a non-astringent persimmon species. Round and squat, it resembles a tomato, and its color can range from warm yellow to dark orange-red. It can be enjoyed either firm or fully ripened, and this versatility has made it the most commonly cultivated persimmon in the world.
Eating a hachiya persimmon, by contrast, is not quite as straightforward. Larger than the fuyu and shaped a bit like an acorn, this astringent variety requires adequate time to ripen before it’s eaten; unripe, its flavor is intensely sour and tannic. As they ripen, their skin turns increasingly transparent as their flesh softens into a jelly-like pulp.
Other non-astringent persimmons include the giant fuyu (gosho) persimmon, which is double the size of the average fuyu; the pale-orange jiro persimmon; and the super-sweet Sharon fruit, which gets its name from Israel’s Sharon plain.
Astringent varieties include the American persimmon, which is paler orange in color. Similar to the Asian hachiya, this regional variety is completely inedible until it’s fully ripened. Mexico’s Black Sapote is unique from other persimmons, with an inedible green skin that conceals a creamy interior that looks strikingly similar to chocolate pudding. And then there’s the aromatic, speckled, and complex Maru, a type of hachiya known as the “chocolate” persimmon. They have “a beautiful orange color with brown speckles and a darker flesh as well,” says Sullivan of Frog Hollow Farms. “They also have this caramel-y, almost butterscotch flavor that I love to eat with yogurt or cottage cheese.”
Which cultures eat persimmons?
Because of their origins and history, persimmons are closely tied to East Asian cultures.
“Persimmons are a hero fruit in Korea. They’re so beautiful, unique, and wide-ranging in flavor. They really represent the harvest culture in East Asian countries,” says Irene Yoo, the Korean-American chef behind the Brooklyn-based Korean comfort food channel Yooeating.
One of the most recognized traditions surrounding persimmons is hoshigaki, a centuries-old Japanese method of preserving the fruit that is also observed in China as shìbǐng and Korea as gotgam. The tradition consists of peeling persimmons before hanging them on strings and gently massaging the fruit every day for four to six weeks, until it forms a powdery white skin and its flavor has a deep, nuanced sweetness.
“Seeing dried persimmons was always such a significant cultural marker for me. I remember seeing my mom try to do it when I was a kid or watching people dry persimmons around this time of year when we’d go back to Korea,” says Yoo. “That jammy, candied dried persimmon flavor takes the fruit to a whole other level.”
In North America and Europe, persimmons are typically used in sweet recipes, like jams, breads, pies, and puddings. Persimmon pudding is particularly popular in the United States and is considered to be a specialty from the state of Indiana.
“My mom used to make cookies with hachiyas, and they were always so incredibly moist and spicy,” says Sullivan.
What do persimmons taste like?
“Persimmons have this beautifully delicate flavor that almost has a cantaloupe quality to it, both in color and sweetness,” says Yoo. “I also get hints of honey or squash, but in a more vegetable-like sense.”
If you research persimmon recipes, you might notice an abundance of warm spices on the ingredient lists. While these fall flavors are known to pair well with sweet persimmons, their notes naturally occur in the fruit’s pulp as well.
“Biting into a fuyu is similar to eating an apple, but with a spicier flavor that’s closer to a pumpkin, with some hints of cinnamon and nutmeg,” says Sullivan. “Hachiyas, however, are intensely sweet and remind me of a spiced, caramel jam.”
Which brings us to the flavor of unripe hachiyas, and astringent persimmons more generally: biting into one is absolutely not recommended. Unripe astringent persimmons contain high levels of tannins, naturally occurring chemical substances that give the flesh an overwhelmingly sour flavor. But they break down as the fruit ripens, turning it into something richly sweet.
“Leave your unripened persimmons on the counter for about a week before eating them,” Sullivan advises. “If you want to eat them sooner, try placing them somewhere warm or in a bag with something ripe to speed up the process.”
Non-astringent persimmons like the fuyu also contain tannins, but in much lower quantities, making them enjoyable to eat before they fully ripen.
How do you eat persimmons?
Since fuyus can be eaten while firm, you can bite into them like an apple, slice them up, or bake them into loaves, cookies, and cakes. Astringent persimmons such as hachiyas, on the other hand, feel like a water balloon filled with jelly when they’re ripe, which makes slicing them difficult. Therefore, it’s best to use a spoon to scoop out their pulp, which is ideal for recipes like compotes, jams, and pudding cakes.
Seems like there are plenty of ways to bake with persimmons, but what can you cook with them?
While persimmons are excellent in dessert recipes, they’re also great in savory dishes. They can be used to make vinegar, like Korean gamsikcho, which straddles the sourness of apple cider vinegar and persimmons’ sweetness. They can also be roasted until charred, pickled while still firm, added to salads, served alongside mild cheeses on a charcuterie board, cooked down to make dressings and marinades for meat, and even transformed into spiced drinks like Korean sujeonggwa.
“Sujeonggwa is my favorite way of enjoying persimmons,” says Yoo. “It’s a dried persimmon and cinnamon-infused tea that’s commonly served after dinner for aiding digestion or at Chuseok, Korea’s autumn festival. The cinnamon brings out its sweet fall flavor.”
Where can I buy persimmons?
Due to their seasonality, you’ll likely find persimmons in stores beginning in October. But if your local grocery store doesn’t carry persimmons, you can often find them in Asian supermarkets or farmers markets in persimmon-growing states like California, Virginia, or Florida.
But wait, is this really the only time of year that I can eat them?
Yep. Unlike other fruits that thrive in warm weather, persimmons are a fall crop that (depending on the variation) can ripen as early as mid-September and sometimes even stay on trees until the first few months of the following year. The ripening process usually takes place between mid-September and early November. The season generally lasts through December, and then they’re gone.
Can I just grow my own persimmon tree at home?
You sure can. Persimmon trees are relatively easy to grow and maintain due to their tolerance of different soil conditions. Budded or grafted trees typically yield the best results, but home gardeners can utilize cuttings, seeds, and suckers as well to get started.
If you do decide to grow your own, be sure to plant your tree in full sunlight and know which kind of persimmon tree you are growing. American persimmon trees require both male and female flowers since they are not self-pollinating. Asian persimmon trees, on the other hand, are self-pollinating and don’t require more than one tree to bear fruit. However, Asian and American trees cannot cross-pollinate, so make sure you know exactly what you’re planting in your backyard.
If persimmons are pretty easy to find, why don’t we hear more about them?
“I think people don’t really understand them yet. Or they may think of them as too astringent if they don’t wait long enough to eat them,” says Sullivan. That said, “there’s definitely an interest,” she adds, particularly given the uptick in people curious about seasonal eating. Frog Hollow’s own persimmon harvest has been great this year, Sullivan says. “We’re actually getting a lot of inquiries, with higher demand than supply. Especially for fuyus, the demand is growing.”
“I think persimmons are getting some more traction,” Yoo agrees. “As a kid, I’d see them in small pockets in America. So they’re there, and it’s something I’m definitely starting to see more in restaurants or cocktail making.”
It’s worth noting, too, that there are plenty of persimmon festivals scheduled annually across the country, from Indiana to North Carolina, California to Missouri; even if persimmons don’t have the widespread recognition of other fall foods, they still have plenty of dedicated fans.
And at this time of year, it’s easy to become one of them. Here are some sweet and savory options to get you started. Just don’t wait too long: The season is as short as it is delicious.
• JinJoo’s Sujeonggwa
• Alverta S. Hart’s Persimmon Pudding
• Candice Walker’s Persimmon Cake
• La Boîte’s Pickled Persimmons
• Ashley Adamant’s Persimmon Jam
• David Tanis’s Persimmon Salad with Pomegranate and Walnuts
• Julia Frey’s Pork Roast with Warm Persimmon Sauce
• Martha Stewart’s Broiled Persimmons with Mascarpone