Whenever I think I make a quick post about a topic, somehow I always end up with a full-fledged study in some way…well I shouldn’t mind, I guess, because it brings back some many cherished memories (i.e. the CAMPHOR TREE・楠). This post about the dried persimmons, sets me right back into Japan during this month of year.
October days are most pleasant with skies clear, the air refreshingly cool, leaves fiery red or bright yellow. Ideal for hikes in the countryside or leisurely walks in quite neighborhoods of the cities and towns. The autumn season has much to offer for the eye, but also comes up with many delectable amenities, of which the dried persimmon is one of them. With producing techniques nowadays in place, the nutritious treat could technically be made available all year round. However, only during the autumn months one will notice the fruits on strings hanging from below the eaves of resident housings and in front of windows on balconies of apartment buildings. So this practice of drying persimmon outdoors in the sunlight is distinctly associated to this time of year, therefore considered an aspect of FUUBUTSUSHI (風物詩・ふうぶつし; things reminiscent to seasons), in other words the emotional awareness by Japanese people for certain seasonal characteristics, apart from such things as natural phenomenons, living things or sense of taste.
The DIOSPYROS KAKI (柿の木・かきのき), which is its botanical description, meaning divine fruit derived from the Greek language (dios = god; pios = bestowed thing), grows not only abundantly in Japan, but made its way from Asia also onto other continents, like South and North America, Australia and Europe. The main cultivation of the fruits still lies within Asia though, thus the practice of dry-hanging persimmons, HOSHIGAKI (干し柿・ほしがき), as it is called in Japanese, can be seen in various regions such as the Korean peninsula, great parts of China, Taiwan and Vietnam among other nations. This traditional method of drying kaki, may also be found in California, where it is said to have been introduced to the United States of America along with the fruits themselves by Japanese descendants in the 19th century.
The rather intriguing process of making these dried fruits in Japan dates back over a 1000 years, all the way to the HEIAN PERIOD (平安時代・へいあんじだい; 794-1185), when its existence was confirmed in literary form for the first time around 927 in the completed compilation of ancient government laws and codes, called the ENGI-SHIKI (延期式・えんぎしき). There it was recorded being used as sweets for ritual purposes. It is believed that till the coincidental discovery of the sweet persimmon, the AMAGAKI (甘柿・あまがき), in about the middle of the KAMAKURA PERIOD (鎌倉時代・かまくらじだい; 1185-1333), only the astringent species of persimmon existed in Japan. This makes evident that for making the bitter persimmon eatable, people must have come up with the ingenious production method themselves in previous centuries.
Later on during the SENGOKU PERIOD (戦国時代・せんごくじだい; sometimes also referred to as Waring States Period; 1467-1603), the Hoshigaki became a local delicacy produce of the MINO PROVINCE. A tale even has it that it being presented by the prominent warlord ODA NOBUNAGA (織田信長・おだのぶなが) himself as specialty of his territory to LUIS FROIS, a Portuguese missionary visiting him in the late 1560’s. The way of dangling the kaki as we see it today is thought to have emerged during the MEIJI PERIOD (明治時代・めいじじだい; 1868-1912). World-stage prominence came to this exquisite dried and nutrient snack for a first time while exhibited at the World’s Fair held in 1900 and 1904 respectively in form of DOUJOU-HACHIYAGAKI (堂上蜂屋柿・どうじょうはちやがき; or Court Noble Hachiya Persimmons that have been presented to Emperors and Shoguns alike), a famous commodity of GIFU PREFECTURE. HACHIYA (蜂屋柿・はちやがき) are a common variety of astringent Japanese persimmon.
The dried persimmons have been valued since long not only as emergency food, but it spread well and was consumed in small numbers as sort of stimulating luxury grocery across the provinces. The Hoshigaki were maintained by farmers as subsidiary of their business and passed down the generations of families, whereby the production process has been steadily improved and changed throughout the centuries. With this it can be concluded that this divine fruit can be attributed with an important role in the past until this very date, further that it can continuously be traced back throughout the documented and well-know eras of Japan’s history. Fascinating.
Hoshigaki, just like any other dried fruits, have since olden times served as practical, easy-to-store snacks with the property of supplying essential nutritional components in the absence of certain foods, for instance during the winter months or on long travels. Its rich in dietary fibers and vitamin C. Normally eating one a day should supply for the necessary amount of the vitamin. When the fruits are dried, like the Hoshigaki in the sun, the vitamin C will disappear, on the other hand the β(beta)-Carotene will increase instead, which is beneficial in moderate quantities to treat a variety of disorders or reduce the risk of certain types of cancer.
Besides its nourishing and preservation qualities, it is also highly valued as ENGIMONO (縁起物・えんぎもの; lucky charm) in Japan and as suitable sweet going well with tea. From the many values it consist of comes the appropriately formulated proverb 「柿が赤くなると医者が青くなる・かきがあかくなるといしゃがあおくなる」, which is the pendant of the English expression ‘An apple a day keeps the Doctor away’. Its nutritional and utility qualities are undisputed, but also its leaves come with a range of surprisingly beneficial effects, for example antioxidant and disinfecting values, hence they are used for teas or wrapping SUSHI (寿司・すし; i.e. for Kaki no Hazushi – 柿の葉寿司・かきのはすし). With all these virtues combined, I think it is only fair and square the kaki fruit being considered truly a blessings from the heavens.
The kaki type used for the Hoshigaki, is usually the above mentioned non-eatable, even when ripened astringent and bitter tasting SHIBUGAKI (渋柿・しぶがき) that contains a high grade of tannin. Although its counter part, the Amagaki may be used as well, when dried it will be less sweet than the Shibugaki, which has in fact a higher sugar content. With the process of SHIBUNUKI (渋抜き・しぶぬき; removing of the astringent taste), basically by letting the fruits ‘bath’ in the sunlight, the water content will slowly but steadily evaporate, whereby the bitter taste gradually dwindles away, turning into sweetness instead. In the drying process, the sugar content of the fruit can crystallize, resulting in a fine white coating around the persimmon, which doesn’t need to be removed before consumption. Some people might mistake it for mold, but is used in Japan as a sugar substitute, in China even applied as natural remedy.
Now let’s have a closer look into the making of Hoshigaki. I think there are some subtle differences in recipes and also it depends on the type and size of the fruits, but I think the procedure here explained should cover general rules. In a first step, the skins of the persimmon are peeled off with a kitchen knife, like done with apples. Then the kaki have T-shaped branches attached to them, which don’t need to be disposed because they serve well to tighten the strings to. People nowadays use regular strings (i.e. 60 – 70cm in length) that can be bought in stores, originally though strings made of hemp, corn malice skins, windmill palm leaves came into use. Often fruits of two build a set, each on either end of the string (see above picture), however, people sometimes tie multiple kaki together. In some parts of Japan, little kaki are pierced with bamboo skewers to hang-dry them, which are the so called KUSHIGAKI (串柿・くしがき; dried persimmons on skewers) as seen in the image right below, which are occasionally utilized to decorate the New Year’s offering, the KAGAMIMOCHI (鏡餅; mirror-shaped mochi, usu. a pair stacked in order of size).
To prevent the fruits from getting moldy in the process, the kaki are disinfected by carefully dipping them into boiling hot water for just about 5 seconds. Afterwards, the prepared Hoshigaki are hung to dry from a self-made fixture near the house front under the roofs, in a place where the wind can blow through well for sufficient air ventilation and where the sunlight reaches amply, yet still to avoid direct impact from rain and dew, which could cause infestation of mold again. This way of drying the persimmon, brought them also the name of TSURUSHIGAKI (吊るし柿・つるしがき; hanging (to dry) persimmons). At this point I need to mention that I read that the notorious KARASU (カラス・烏/鴉; crows) like to snatch them, too. Opportunity makes thieves, I suppose, so also there some precaution should be taken into consideration.
Depending on one’s own preferences the kaki don’t have to be completely dried in order to be eaten, however, if they are only midway the drying stage, then they can’t be stored to the same degree because they are more prone to become mildewy. This kind of Hoshigaki with the fruit flesh in relatively soft state, still containing partially water content, if fumigated in sulfur, become the ANPOGAKI (あんぽ柿・あんぽがき, partially dried persimmon) that can also be stored to some extent.
To come back to the dangling ‘fellows’, they should be arranged the way that they don’t stick to each other. Best to slightly shift high and low as is also nicely illustrated in the above image. Once the fruits have been dehydrating for about a week, the outer layer hardens, whereby one should softly massage the fruits with the fingers and repeat the same act over again after a few days. Although the outer surface gets harder there is still puckery juice inside the persimmons. The gentle pressing will move the firm syrupy pulp inside, helping in getting rid of the astringent components faster. The massaging is also said to make the dried fruits sweeter. Generally after 2-3 weeks, about halfway into the drying stage, the most desired, previously mentioned, Anpogaki are ready to eat, sticky and soft inside, with smooth, meaty texture as seen in the following video. Completely dried Hoshigaki that are not massaged are said to take roughly about 30 – 40 days to harvest.
Watching the video makes one wanna bite right into one, isn’t it!? – Like other fruits and vegetables, the kaki has to tell a story of its own, including the one of Hoshigaki. I always wondered what it was all about when seeing the fruits outside, which ultimately lead me into this self-study. I also tie nice memories of pleasant autumn days to it when walking through neighborhoods near my apartment and a trip to TAKACHIHO, MIYAZAKI PREFECTURE, the mystical and legendary land, where gods are believed to have descended to form the nation, in particular. While the bus follows the meandering roads, I could observe from the bus window neat little villages with farmers tending their fields around small communities of traditional houses. In backyards or where a strip of ground sometimes separated fields, trees stripped off their foliage, but full of brightly shimmering kaki fruits stand in all their beauty.