Persimmons are ripe for the holidays
Perhaps persimmon is the only tree that looks better when its leaves have fallen. The fruits are revealed and the tree comes alive. They look downright bejeweled, dotted in coppery orange globes, and I find them endlessly enchanting. There is one tree in particular I have fallen dearly in love with. It stands above a ravine beside the road leading up the hill on which we live. The land around it has gone through many iterations. Today it is flattened one level above with a field of solar panels and one level below with a nursing home. The trunk and branches twist in a way that reminds me of the snarled juniper trees I’ve hiked among in the deserts of New Mexico. I feel a sense of longing when I see that tree, that strange sort of mild pensive sorrow from which melancholy is born. But the fruits chase away my wistful mood and never fail to draw a smile. That oscillation between enchantment and melancholy in many ways encapsulates how I feel about living in Japan. There is so much to love here, so much to admire and praise and emulate. And then there is the underlying persistent loneliness, an isolation that stems from never feeling completely connected, never feeling fully known. It’s no longer a matter of a language as it was in the beginning. I’ve achieved a level of proficiency that makes communication possible. Rather it’s that gap in which things are lost in translation, the common denominator of culture and language that allows shared sense of humor and perspective. The meaning of my words are understood but not always the spirit of their delivery.
I find comfort in the annual cycles that have come to define my life here and bring me much joy, like markets full of persimmons, one of the few fruits we eat much of here. Most fruit in Japan is treated like a show dog, primped and coddled so much as to turn out looking like a caricature of itself. It’s not uncommon to see fruit trees dotted with white bags covering each individual pear or bunch of grapes. I’ve seen apples so waxy I wonder if they are real. Meanwhile melons are individually boxed and cost a small fortune, and a sickly strain of palest pink strawberries are prized. But persimmons seem to be left well enough alone, and piles of them line the market shelves selling for a rather reasonable price.
Fuyu persimmons, round and squat like an orange tomato, are naturally very sweet and fairly forgiving when it comes to judging ripeness. When less ripe they are pleasantly crisp like an apple or nashi pear, and when more ripe, sweeter, softer and juicy. Chunks of a good ripe persimmon taste wonderful under a cloud of tofu whipped with sesame paste and white miso in the soft, umami rich version of shiraae that Sachiko taught me. For a lighter, more salad like feel, we combine chunks of persimmon with blanched chrysanthemum greens. This salad is light and fresh, sweet against bitter and sour, and silky smooth with a slight crunch. It brings together the sweet orange fruit that softly yields to the bite with slightly bitter chrysanthemum greens that even when blanched are crispy and fibrous. All is dressed with a silken blend of yuzu, light sesame oil, a splash of light soy and a sprinkle of salt. In a season when we set the table with more substantial fare, it’s an all around lovely and lively compliment to the heartier, meatier, dishes that fortify the belly on increasingly colder evenings.