Ask Peter: New ways with persimmon
We have a persimmon tree fruiting with the astringent variety, which I understand you can’t eat raw until they are really soft, unlike the non astringent sort. Do we need to treat them differently when they are being cooked? I was hoping you can give me some ideas on how to use them in cooking other than for jams or jellies. Can you use them in Asian cooking, since they come from China and Japan?
I can well remember the first persimmon I ever ate, I must have been about 12 and my mother was living in Takapuna at the time. She had this pretty tree in her garden which her neighbours said was a fruit tree called a persimmon, from China or Japan. As the only fruit trees I’d ever really known were apple and lemon, I was thrilled. As summer rolled on and school back in Whanganui was beckoning, I figured the fruit must surely be ripe. How wrong I was! When I picked one of the fruit and bit into it, instead of the expected exotic rush or gorgeous sweet aromatic flavour, I was whacked in the mouth with the most sour, bitter, dry, mouthpuckering awfulness imaginable. Mum’s tree was clearly one of the astringent varieties.
This means that the fruit must be fairly soft (never rotten) when eaten, as the fruit contains high amounts of tannin (the substance that makes tea bitter if brewed too strong). These varieties generally ripen from around late autumn and so my Auckland summer would never be the right time to eat such a fruit. Having said that, if you ever pick a fruit in autumn and want to ripen it quickly, place it in an airtight container with either an apple, pear or banana. They release a gas called ethylene which helps speed up the process. Sitting in the sun can also help — although there’s less of that in late autumn!
In New Zealand the main commercial persimmon crop is the orange-skinned variety called fuyu, which can be eaten firm, almost apple-like. The tannins present aren’t so strong and the crunch of the fruit is very pleasant. They’re relatively high in vitamin C and have plenty of trace elements so they’re good for you, and when ripe they’re really tasty.
In Britain, persimmons are often called sharon fruit which I think is a really odd name, but it’s down to the fact that the variety most commonly found here originates in the Sharon Valley in Israel, it’s not the name of the orchardist. They’re always eaten firm, peeled and sliced into salads and the like.
But if you really truly want a persimmon experience then wait for a ripe astringent one. You’d be best to buy them a little firm and take them home to get them ready. If they’re too soft when you buy them you do run the risk of having them burst open in your shopping bag on the way home. Leave them to ripen on the windowsill in full sun, or with other fruit as described above, and keep your eye on them. They’ll begin to soften and then eventually their skin will begin to crack.
About a day before the cracking is when they’ll be ready to eat. The best way to do it is to remove the calyx — the bit where the berry (it’s not technically a fruit) was attached to the tree. Use a sharp knife to make the calyx hole a little larger, then use a teaspoon to scoop out the almost jelly-like flesh. Or you can carefully peel the skin off and cut the flesh into large chunks, discarding the seeds.
However, you want to cook with them. The best variety to cook with in anything other than a dessert is the firm, less astringent variety, as their texture will stay intact and they won’t dissolve into the finished dish. Simply peel the skin then cut into matchstick-sized strips to add to a seafood stir-fry at the end of cooking, or cut into dice to mix through roast chicken pieces towards the end of cooking along with spring onions and toasted sesame seeds. For a rice pudding, add the pulp of a few ripe astringent persimmons along with a slug of rum right at the end and you’ll never look back!
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you’re stumped over something food-related, send your question to email@example.com and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.