Friday, December 12, 2008

Persimmons : Food of the Gods

Persimmons belong to the botanical genus diospyros and have often been called the "food of the gods". Derived from the Greek, "dios" means divine, or god, and "pyros" means grain of wheat, or food. There are many species of persimmon, each with its characteristic shape, color, and taste. It's clear from their name that they have been recognized as "divine food" for a very long time.

The Japanese persimmon, diospyros kaki, is native to Asia and has been cultivated there for over a thousand years. Fuyu and Hachiya are the two Japanese varieties most familiar to westerners. Powdered dried kakis were the only form of sweetener other than honey available in Japan until the seventeenth century. The leafy calyx of the fruit, "calyx kaki" is used as a traditional Chinese medicinal herb.

The Japanese village of Hachiya was famous for its persimmons which were specially cultivated and painstakingly dried for presentation to the Imperial Court each year. "Hachiya" means "the house of the bees", an apt name for this honey- sweet variety. The labor intensive tradition of growing and drying persimmons continues to this day in the same region; the product is a highly valued luxury item.

Persimmons were also native to the the eastern half of the United States. Diospyros virginiana was prized by the Algonquin people, who called them "pessimen", which means "dried fruit"; a variant of the name became our modern term for it. Persimmon trees produce large quantities of fruit; preserving it by drying allowed pre-industrial societies to enjoy and benefit from it as an important source of food long after harvest.

A seedless variety of the Japanese Fuyu persimmon called "Sharon", named after the ancient and famously beautiful fertile coastal plain of Israel, has been developed by Israeli horticulturists; it is now a major export and is raised commercially all over the world. Today's widespread popularity of the "food of the gods" would come as no surprise to the great 17th century Japanese poet Basho, who wrote these words long ago:

"In the old villages, no house is without its kaki tree".