During my first few months in Seoul last year, time stretched and snapped like a worn rubber band. Autumn was long and intoxicating, and then winter hit like a sobering cold shower. I adjusted, but a nagging void kept the seasons from feeling real. Back home in Minnesota, the emergence of local apples marks the beginning of fall. You get back in the kitchen after a summer of barbecuing, and you put your oven to good use. In the States, I cooked a lot, though I was never much of a baker. Suddenly, when there was no oven, it was all I wanted to do. And I wanted to bake apple pie.
For those first couple of months, I didn’t make much more than a grilled cheese sandwich, partly because it can be cheaper to eat out well than to cook in Seoul, and partly because I didn’t realize that I needed to start. On Thanksgiving I made applesauce on the stove, and it felt like a small accomplishment. I was beginning to settle in.
I kept cooking. Bit by bit, I found my footing—both in the kitchen and in my new home. When September rolled around again, I began to see produce I hadn’t noticed last year: everywhere I looked, there were persimmons. For weeks I walked past markets with coral-colored daebong-gam and pumpkin-hued dan-gam stacked like stone pagodas. Persimmons were clearly revered, but I hadn’t the slightest idea what to do with them.
Persimmons were clearly revered, but I hadn’t the slightest idea what to do with them.
My friend Suzi changed all that. Suzi creates incredible vegan and gluten-free desserts, and at her apartment one night, she cut up a dan-gam and served it straight up on a plate. It was a little crunchy, a little sweet, and it tasted less exciting than it looked. Her persimmon dessert, though, was otherworldly. She’d filled a raw hazelnut crust with persimmon vanilla cream and topped it with dried persimmons. She really brought out the big guns at the end, and I began to see potential in this new fruit.
When I looked for recipes online, I found people all over the world cooking and baking with persimmons. They made cakes, crisps, scones, and breads, but without an oven, there could be none of these. So I turned to the stove, and then to wine. One Sunday, promising booze, I convinced my friend Mike to spend hours experimenting in the kitchen with me. We made a cardamom-spiked filler for crepes, a persimmon chutney spiced with cinnamon and ginger, a smooth fruity butter, and a pitcher of liqueur-laced sangria. It took three trips to the market and two sink-loads of dishes, but we both emerged better acquainted with this new fruit.
Now when I think of autumn in Korea, I think of persimmons. You don’t have to leave the city to see them in their glory, either. Just walk the back streets of Seoul to find vivid, orange globes clutching to bare black branches like a string of jack-o-lantern lights. A persimmon tree, late in season, is really a thing of beauty.
These recipes attempt to showcase the very subtle flavor of the persimmon, and none of them require an oven. I used two kinds found in markets throughout the city: daebong-gam and dan-gam (these are most commonly known to English speakers by their Japanese names, hachiya and fuyu, respectively). The acorn-shaped daebong-gam has the simple sweetness of a melon and the texture of pudding. If you buy it while it’s still firm, allow it to soften until the skin has puckered and the whole fruit feels like an overripe tomato. Wait to eat it until you think it’s ripe enough, and then wait another day. To eat one, slice off the top and scrape the flesh from the skin with a spoon. Dan-gams are yellower and sturdy like gourds and can be eaten while firm, although they’re also lovely if left to soften slightly. Dan-gams tenderize beautifully, making them great for chutney or preserves. To slice one, turn it upside down and cut between the delicate lines of its base to avoid the stubborn seeds.
Persimmon, Pear, and Pomegranate Sangria
White wine rarely makes the cut when I’m brainstorming cold-weather cocktails, but this boozy sangria has its own way of warming. Make a pitcher for a party and serve it in simple, stemless glasses.
1 bottle dry white wine (Chardonnay or something like it)
3 tablespoons Cointreau
1 tangerine, juiced
1 cup sliced dan persimmon
1 cup peeled and sliced pear
a big handful of pomegranate seeds
cider or ginger ale
honey or pure apple juice (optional)
Pour the liquids into a pitcher and add the fruit. Stir and allow the fruit to infuse the wine in the fridge for at least four hours. Six hours is ideal. Taste before serving, and add apple juice or honey if it isn’t sweet enough. Top off each glass with cider or ginger ale.
Make it a New Year’s resolution to always have a jar of chutney in your fridge. Even better if you’ve made it yourself. Eat with cheese, curry and rice, roasted meat or scrambled eggs. Chutney is your new favorite condiment.
3 peeled and sliced dan persimmon, chopped to ½ inch pieces
½ a peeled and sliced apple, cut to ½ inch pieces
1 cup chopped onion
½ cup golden raisins, roughly chopped
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
¼ cup raw sugar
1 teaspoon minced ginger
1 cinnamon stick
crushed seeds from 2 cardamom pods
Put everything in a pot and bring to a boil. Cover and turn the flame to low so that everything simmers. Leave it on for 20–25 minutes until the fruit is tender and the chutney is thick and sweet.
Mike deserves all the credit for this one. Fruit butter is even easier than chutney to make. I like it on a thick slice of warm toast. This recipe makes enough for one small jar.
3 peeled, skinned, and pureed daebong persimmons
3 tablespoons pure apple juice
2 tablespoons mae-dan plum tea
½ lemon, juiced
Combine all ingredients in a pot over a high flame. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer. Cook for 20–30 minutes until you’ve got a thick sauce, stirring occasionally as you go.
Baby Greens Salad with Persimmons and Almonds
This bright salad makes a good starter or snack and is a great way to incorporate fresh fruit into your day. The slightest hint of maple in the vinaigrette brings out the sweetness of the persimmons. A pinch of cayenne adds warmth.
dan persimmon, sliced in half moons, somewhat thin
toasted almonds, warm
Maple Mustard Vinaigrette (makes enough for four cups of leaves)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon pure maple syrup
½ teaspoon whole grain dijon mustard
¼ teaspoon salt
pinch of cayenne pepper
4 tablespoons oil (I used a combination of sunflower and extra virgin olive oils)
Whisk all ingredients together except the oil, then slowly add the oil until you’ve got an emulsion.
Persimmon Rice Pudding
With its silky flesh, pureed daebong persimmon blends well with a rice pudding’s easy, understated texture. A touch of orange or tangerine zest perks up every mild, creamy bite. This pudding is good at any temperature, but I like to eat it lukewarm.
3 ½ cups whole milk
½ cup short grain rice, uncooked
pinch of salt
2 egg yolks
1/4 cup raw sugar
1/3 cup golden raisins
flesh scooped from 2 daebong persimmons, blended to a puree
orange or tangerine zest to finish
Combine rice, milk, and salt in a medium pot. Bring to a quick bowl, and stir the rice to keep it from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Once you have a boil, reduce the heat to a slight simmer and cover. Cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Uncover the pot and continue to simmer on low for about 10 minutes, stirring constantly. Your rice should be tender, and the pudding will look a little thin, just like it should. Remove from the heat while you mix your eggs and sugar.
In a medium bowl, whisk egg yolks with sugar. Then ladle a small amount of the rice pudding into the bowl, whisking with your free hand. You want to temper the eggs, or bring up their temperature slowly; otherwise, they’ll scramble. Continue to add the rice pudding and whisk bit by bit. Return the mix to the pot and add the raisins. Cook on medium high for about 2 minutes, and keep stirring. Turn off the heat and add the persimmon puree. Move the pudding to a bowl and cover it with plastic wrap to keep a skin from developing. Eat warm, or cool to room temperature, or chill. Zest the orange or tangerine over the top just before serving.
Persimmon and Vegetable Curry (for 4)
My Scottish friend Graeme gave me the idea for this when he told me about a favorite family recipe: his mother’s fruity curry with apples, chutney and a homemade curry paste. If you’re going to try just one recipe from the bunch, I encourage you to go for this.
1 red pepper
1 small onion
1 dan persimmon
1 can whole coconut milk
½ teaspoon grated ginger
2-3 tablespoons red curry paste
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon raw sugar
½ cup roasted cashews
cooked long grain rice
Slice red pepper, onion, persimmon and carrot into ½ inch pieces. Heat a tablespoon of oil in a frying pan and add the onion, carrot and grated ginger. Sauté for a couple of minutes until the carrots start to soften. Add coconut milk, curry paste, salt and sugar. Simmer until the sauce thickens and adjust as you need to, adding more paste for a stronger taste of curry. After about 5–7 minutes, stir in the red pepper, persimmon and cashews and continue cooking for another 3 minutes. Finish with a squeeze of lemon and a few cilantro leaves.
1 daebong persimmon, peeled and pureed
Swirl together. Eat.