Grocery Ninja: Dried Persimmons Are a Taste of Honeyed Sunshine
The Grocery Ninja leaves no aisle unexplored, no jar unopened, no produce untasted. Creep along with her below, and read all her mission reports here.
Hoshigaki are tender, succulent, and moist. These are Hachiya (acorn-shaped) persimmons dried the traditional Japanese way—in the sun, with nary a preservative in sight. The taste is intense—concentrated persimmon flavor with honeyed overtones and perhaps the barest hint of cinnamon—but it's definitely the texture that gets to me. Hoshigaki have chewy, almost jelly-like insides that I distinctly remember my mom trying to con me of when I was a kid ("Sweetie, those dried-up persimmons don't look very good, why don't you have these yummy grapes instead?").
Hoshigaki are made by peeling fresh Hachiya persimmons, then hanging them up to dry in "a spot that gets some sun and some wind." Crucially, the drying persimmons are never allowed to touch each other—mold is the enemy, and any spot where air may not circulate is a potential enemy safe haven. The persimmons are also gently massaged by hand once every few days to break up the insides, smooth the outsides (wrinkles trap moisture and allow mold to grow), and to encourage the fruit's sugars to migrate to the surface in a "delicate white bloom."
Made with plenty of tender, loving care (hand massages every few days!), only a very small amount of hoshigaki make it onto the market, and these tend to be snapped up immediately. I love hoshigaki and would eat them every day if I could get my greedy paws on them. Unfortunately, hoshigaki can cost up to $35 a pound (approximately $4 apiece). So, short of making my own (an endeavor doomed to failure due to my lack of patience), I've had to look elsewhere for my fix.
This is where the Korean "gotgam" or Chinese "shibing" come in. Made by drying Fuyu (orb-shaped) persimmons, the main difference between these and hoshigaki lies in the processing technique. The Koreans and Chinese do not massage the drying fruit. The persimmons are also laid on baskets to dry instead of being suspended in the air—hence the "squished" disc shape, as opposed to the hoshigaki's drooping tear-drop shape. This difference in technique means that instead of the $4 apiece that you would have to shell out for hoshigaki, gotgams or shibings will run you maybe 40 cents each.
And here's the crux: Having tasted both, I don't actually think hoshigaki and gotgam/shibing fall on polar opposites of the deliciousness scale. Don't get me wrong—I respect the hard work and dedication of the farmers and artisans that make hoshigaki. I think $4 apiece is a fair price for all the time and labor that goes into its making. But for those of us who might not be able to justify spending that much money on a single piece of fruit, or who would simply love to indulge in it more frequently, I have found that if you're careful and know what to look for, you can find gotgam/shibing every bit as divine.
So here's what to look for: similar to any other dried fruit—apricots or raisins, for instance—if they look shriveled up, they'll taste shriveled up. In Korean or Chinese groceries, dried persimmons are usually cling-wrapped on styrofoam beds. I know it's poor manners to prod at produce, but I'm not saying prod so hard that you leave a bruise on the fruit. I'm saying touch the persimmons with the barest of pressure and you'll know immediately if they're plump and squishy on the insides. And if you feel really bad about molesting your produce, rest assured that after you've had some practice, you won't even need to touch them—a quick glance will give you your answer.
Slow Food USA has placed hoshigaki in its Ark of Taste, "a catalog of almost 200 delicious foods in danger of extinction." So please, if you're able to afford hoshigaki, buy hoshigaki! It would be a shame to let this centuries-old tradition die out. At the same time, my motto is: just because my budget is unlikely to accommodate Beluga caviar, doesn't mean I should dismiss salmon roe. I've had better luck at finding quality gotgams here in the States than I have been at finding quality shibing, so I stick to sourcing my dried persimmons at Korean groceries.
Dried persimmons are fantastic on their own, perhaps accompanied with a steaming cup of green tea. They're also an interesting addition to the cheeseboard and work very well chopped up in scones and almond biscotti. Oh, and when simmered with fresh ginger and cinnamon, they make a bracing Korean digestif called Sujeonggwa, recipe here.
About the author: Wan Yan Ling can usually be found in the kitchen procrastinating on "real work" or online tracking down obscure recipes. Ling thinks eating alone is no fun, and she still believes in hand-mixing.