For centuries, the Japanese have been making dried persimmons, called hoshigaki, using a traditional method, to enjoy with tea.
There are two types of persimmons: the fuyu, which look like small pumpkins and can be eaten as soon as they turn orange, and the hachiya, which are larger and look like eggs but are very astringent unless they are fully ripe.
I fell in love with them and this is my second year making hoshigaki. I enjoyed every step of the way and I decided to share my journey with you.
In the beginning, I thought that perhaps I can do just a few, like I did last year, and hang them by the window. Each fruit is so beautiful, with a vibrant orange color, a shiny skin and green, lush leaves.
They say “the twine is one of the peasant’s best friends,” and I can attest to that from my own experience. I have had an intimate relationship with twine from my boyhood years in my little village, where there were not many other resources. Before processing hundreds of fruit, I had to design so many things: the knots, the hangers, the resting place, and more.
I tried many kinds of twine, including yarn, to find the most versatile for this job, and in the end, I found it: butcher’s twine. It is thin, strong, light and makes a strong, stable knot.
A major problem was finding not only the place for hanging but also the hanger itself. I decided that a quarter of my kitchen with an hour or so of direct afternoon light was best. The hanger was a much bigger problem. Even though the dried fruit might weigh a few ounces, a fresh one can weigh half a pound. Put many of them together and the weight can collapse a poorly designed hanger. After much experimentation and looking around, I found a simple wire shelf that would be the ideal solution.
My next hurdle was how I would hang them. I finally decided that bamboo sticks, with all their majestic beauty, simplicity and strength would be perfect. It was not easy finding ones with uniform diameter, but after a long stay at the gardening store I found just the right ones for the job. I tied them onto the shelf with wire to withstand the enormous weight. Now it was time to process the first harvest.
I visited the people I went to last year with my friend Ted, once again. They were as nice and generous and they told me that they were happy that someone will enjoy the fruit of their tree and that it will not go to waste. I harvested about 200 fruit.
The four canvas bags that I used on the ground or when I was climbing were so heavy that I could barely carry them. Every single fruit was so beautiful and I handled it with care and gratefulness. The leaves emanated a subtle, earthy aroma.
The stems are slender and soft enough that a pair of scissors can cut through them. I decided to use the pruning scissors for a more accurate and robust cut. Some fruit have blemishes on their skin, but it is only skin-deep. Underneath they are all just as beautiful and perfect.
The calyx is the remainder of when the fruit was still a baby and it was meant to protect the developing baby. With great care and gentleness we remove the leaves around it in a circular fashion so that not only we don’t remove the stem but also minimize any damage to the skin. After doing hundreds of them, the broken pieces are so fun that my hands enjoyed just playing with the pile.
After the fruit is clean and ready to peel, they need a bath to wash off dirt, traffic soot and other little things that don’t belong there. Being organized and careful is important. Having joy in every move is also important.
Peeling might be the hardest part of the work. Some of them are softer and more mature than others, which makes them slippery. Some are not smooth all around which makes peeling not easy. We try to peel the thinnest possible amount so that we don’t damage the fruit core. It takes much practice but after a while it becomes easier and easier.
The skin underneath the stem needs to come off, too. This was Amy’s discovery: by putting the peeler under one point and then moving around in a small, circular path takes out the most. It is breathtaking though because the stem might break, an unfortunate situation that will make hanging very difficult. But not impossible.
Every slicing needs complete presence and care. Each fruit needs about 8-10 peeling moves. If you do the math, that is a lot of peeling. Ask Amy…
The next crucial step, both short and long term, is the hanging. The twine is about 4 feet long to avoid excessive stress from the weight. Every 8-fingers or so we make a little loop and pass it through the stem.
If the distance between the fruit is too little, then they touch and stick to each other, causing injury to the surface and inviting dangerous fungus. The strands need to be far apart enough so that air moves freely. The knot on the hanger needs to be such that it can move easily for rearranging.
I experimented with wire, but in the end the humble twine was the king.
Within days, the fruit is beginning to dry. It is time to massage it so that the pulp inside does not get hard. In the beginning it is hard but as it dries up more and more, the pulp gets softer and softer.
Instead of buying $1.50 or more per fruit, Amy and I spent a little time scouting around town for trees, so that I can ask the owners if they would share a few fruit. It is not easy but it is so much fun.
Amy and I found a tree up in the hills and we asked the owner. The kind old man was generous and let us take “as many as we wanted”. It was about 100. Later, I estimated that it had more than 300. The tree was small, beautiful and easy to harvest. We were so excited.
As the amount of new fruit and the work it required was much more than I have ever done before, I was forced to rethink many aspects of the process. I originally rejected Amy’s idea to use clippies to hang them because I wanted to go “full peasant” and use twine. The idea though of having a more versatile and easy way to manipulate and move them around, finally helped me change my mind. I started using clippies to hang them on the strands instead of twine-knots.
Up until now we were so afraid of not having a V at the stem to make the knot. Now though with the clippies it was so easy. I tried a few different sizes for the clippies and much experimentation, I finally decided the one-inch ones were the best.
The use of clippies made it necessary to redesign the knots and the strands. I was afraid that the weight of the fruit might be too heavy for the clippies and so I designed many different strands and knots to see which one was the best. I left them overnight to check if it would work.
I originally used the twine to hang the strand on the bamboo. However, as the number of strands was increasingly large, this did not work out very well because I could not move the hanging strands easily. After a surprisingly lengthy and laborious experimentation with many different types, I finally decided on this design.
I went to the hardware store and bought a 10-caliber wire, which is pretty thick, and spent an entire evening trying to make the best kind of hook. After I designed it, I made my assembly line: Cut, bend the point where it would hang on the bamboo and bend the little hook where the strand would hang.
I was very excited when the clips arrived, all 500 of them. I found that each strand would need an arm’s length of twine, from my finger tip to my neck. I also used the same little red ruler I made for the hangers, to make sure that the distance between each clip was not only the same, but also enough for the fruit to have good space between them. Using the ruler made the process easy and free of stress and guessing.
I used 7 clips per strand. I tied the two ends in 4 knots and the ones in between with a simple knot. The butcher’s twine is so strong that I found that using the scissors was not very effective and so I just used the wire cutter. I made 100 strands over many nights as I was watching my Korean love story.
After I made each strand, I laid it carefully on the couch before taking them to the stand for storage. They were beautiful laying there, waiting to hold the fruit. I made my first batch and since I could only fit 6 on the space, I stopped there.
It happened so easily and so suddenly.. After I finished my first 6 strands I picked them up carefully and took them to the kitchen so that I could hang them to wait. On the way I think I breathed the wrong way and they were twisted around each other. The clippies were as effective as a fish hook.
It was unbelievable how impossibly difficult it was to untangle them. In the end, and after about half an hour of slowly and methodically trying to clear the mess, I decided that I will give up and just make 6 new ones. It took me 20 minutes. But it was good practice in patience and acceptance.
Ok, maybe I said a couple of mildly-bad Greek words…
Amy and I worked non stop during the weekend to peel and process the 100 I harvested the previous weekend. By now we were pros. And yet, almost another disaster struck when I did not balance the weight properly and I put more fruit on the right side.
The entire hanger almost tipped over. But I sensed it and I fixed it.
Now you know that if you will visit a persimmon dryer’s home, you will see persimmons everywhere. Here is my dinner next to some peeled fruit waiting to be hung. Oh yes, Amy made this amazing fish with potatoes and veggies. I can still taste it.
Just as I thought that it was over, Amy says, “hey, how about you get some more?” It took me about 10 seconds to make up my mind. The thrill and excitement of harvesting was overwhelming. That Saturday I went out again for a “few more” and yet, after visiting the trees, it was a different story. The owners told me “just take them all” and you better bet that I did exactly that. After visiting the four trees, I harvested more than 400 more. We now had a total of 700 or so.
Many of them were high up on the trees which required monkey-level climbing and skill, but I enjoyed every single moment of it. I did it slowly without rush. This time I even trimmed the stems at the tree.
Even the dollar-store scarecrows for my classroom thought it was a little funny.
Once again I was surprised by the sheer but oh so sweet weight and scent of the fresh fruit. Much of it was still not ripe enough, but at the same time, I could not wait because I was afraid that one more week on the tree might be too long.
One hanger would no longer be able to fit all the fruit. A marathon hunt on finding another one started. In the end, I had to drive to Ikea and get the exact same model as the other one and simply expand it. It was a good choice. Another trip to the garden store for more bamboo was much easier.
I decided to move the already semi-dry fruit to the top floor and put the new heavy ones at the bottom to make the structure more stable. I even used the emergency water bottles as weight. Just to make sure.
With 700 fruit on the hanger, it is a full time job caring for them. It is a job I love and which relaxes me and fills me with joy. I decided to rehang some of the original fruit using the clippies.
The spray bottle was used to fight the mold that would grow on some of them because of injury to the skin, either because of the twice touching it or because during the peeling we went a little too deep. Even though I went through two vodka bottles, I estimated that only about 2% were affected by mold. After I would check and treat them daily, within a week it was all over. The skin was healthily drying all clean and nice.
I tried using soju, but I decided that even though it tastes very nice, the 25% alcohol content and the definite scent it carries from the barley, was not going to work.
My kitchen was literally like a sea of hanging fruit, beautiful, orange, scented fruit.I spent more than two hours each night checking each one to make sure that it was massaged, it had plenty of space around it and it was without any mold.
The skin is much drier now. The fruit needs to be checked daily for mold and circulation. In this photo, the string of the strand pushed inside the skin and unless it is moved to another spot, it might injure the skin and invite mold.
By the end of the first week, the skin is dry enough that it starts to make little folds. Now it is the perfect time to start massaging. At first the thumb and the index are enough to start breaking up the pulp, but it needs much care because a wrong move might rupture the skin.
Some of the fruit are more energetic than others. This one has started becoming mature sooner. You can also see a little peel that was left over. It is ok though, because in a few days we can easily, and carefully, pull it off.
Most of the first harvest is almost dry and a speck of sugar is appearing here and there on the surface. By now, I massage them almost twice a day, before I leave for work and after I return home. They feel so tender, yet it is completely safe to massage them.
At this point, I use the palms of both of my hands to roll them and make sure that all the pulp moves around inside.
As the days go by, more and more sugar is forming. Massaging is becoming a little harder, too, because there is not much pulp left. It is not time to give up or get tired yet though. The massage needs to be done with the thumbs against the palm to make sure it moves around.
It has been almost 6 weeks since the beginning and the question is now: do we put them in jars or leave them hanging to dry more? That was a great debate Amy and I had. More than once. The issue is that by now they are so dry that I can barely massage them. We decided that at this point, it is a good time to store them in glass jars.
Storing was another project by itself. It took me a trip, or two, to Ikea and Target to find the best one. I was afraid that if the jar is too large and something goes wrong, like a fungus, it would ruin many of them like in the story with many eggs being all in the same basket. Finally, and after much deliberation, I decided to go with a one-gallon glass jar.
Just like snowflakes, each fruit, too, is unique. These though had a little issue with their shape. The top left one is perfect and most look like it, but the others had a little damage during the peeling and processing.
And yet, Amy and I could not part from them and hang them. It was a good choice because eventually they turned out just as beautiful as the others.
I would say that not one fruit is like another. They all have different color, shape, hardness, sugar amount, and feel to them.
To make my job easier and make sure that I focus on the ones that needed more work more intensely, I rearranged many of the fruit to be around the ones that were at a similar stage. The clippies made this easy.
The fruit needs much work and this can only come from a loving place. I used my mouth to make sure that the butcher’s twine is tight. It is fast, effective and easy. I even made new strands for the original experimental ones believing that the fruit might be happier on them.
As the time to store is upon us, some of the original non-clipped fruit needs to come down. They were not as white as we wanted them to be yet, but at the same time, we could not leave them hanging any more. I tried to leave the stem on the fruit so that it is more beautiful when we gift it.
Even though they were not as white and soft as we wished them to be when we stored them, sure enough, what a sweet surprise: within a couple of days in the jar they continued to make more and more sugar.
They also became softer. We decided to use this method to help them express more sugar and get them softer by putting them in the airtight jars.
For the last couple of years I have been drawing this little man when I give a gift or a love note, and I wanted him to convey my message without too many words. This final version might seem so easy and simple, and yet, it took a 100 more drawings before Amy and I were happy with it.
The label is ready to go. Originally I had included a message of “Enjoy a five-minute tea ritual” on the right panel, but as Amy suggested, we don’t need to print anything but rather handwrite a few words.
Often, if not most of the time, no words or thoughts are necessary at all.
Amy spotted these discolorations on a ready fruit and she thought that it might be mold fungus. It was really scary because this one was in a jar with 49 other fruit. The fungus could easily spread to the rest.
I took a good one and this one to the farmers’ market and discussed it with two Japanese ladies that Amy buys mushrooms and yams from. They marveled at the sugar coating and said that it was what I suspected: moisture discoloration.
I gifted them the two fruit and they ate it immediately and were thankful.
At home, I went into full investigative mode. With a knife, I noticed that the spot came off really easy. Underneath was beautiful.
I took a close-up and zoomed in, too, the little piece but this time I used the sunlight and I put it on a white piece of paper. Indeed, it was not green or any shade of green but rather an orangy color.
The clippies make these hangers as effective as fish hooks, because once they get tangled up, it is impossible to separate them. I experimented with many different ways to store them for next year and this turned out to be the best.
Unfortunately, I had to get a sheet of plastic, the thinnest possible from the hardware store and roll them into it. I tried different thickness of paper but the clippies would rip it.
Half the fruit is still drying. The sugar is much more visible in these because I think we harvested them later.
You can see that I am trying to dry other fruit too, in the same way. So far, the pears are so good that even without the sugar coating, they approach the height of the persimmons in taste, aroma and texture.
I originally started with only one strand of hangers every time I rolled the plastic, but because I had so many hangers I ended up having to move to three per row to fit all 100 of them and not buy more plastic.
Very gently, I curled up each strand and rolled them tight.
As I was playing around with one of the strands, I clipped one clip onto another, and I ended up with a neat, safe from tangling-up “clip-ball”. I know that this is much tangle-safer than rolling them in the plastic sheet, but the idea of clipping 700 clips onto one another is daunting.
Yesterday was the last day of school and I gifted many fruits to my colleagues. Many of them never had one, and most have not even heard of them. Some could not wait until going home and eagerly tasted them at school. They were amazed at the experience.
From the first moment I started the journey until now, I always knew that most of the fruit would be gifted. I spent hundreds of hours in the process, but every moment was filled with joy.
Winter is upon us. All of the fruit has been collected and stored waiting to be gifted and enjoyed. The bamboo is tied up, the hangers are safely rolled away and the shelves dismantled. It is all stored and ready for the next season.
It is time to slow down. Back to the window drying with some last persimmons that are taking their time, a few apples and different kinds of pears. Every time I am near my kitchen window, my heart smiles from the scent of the fruit.