Some people got into sourdough. I turned to a Japanese method of preserving fruit.
“What if I need to go out of town?” asked one thumbnail-sized person on my Zoom screen. “Should I bring the persimmons with me?” He sounded concerned.
“They’ll be okay on their own for a few days,” replied Sonoko Sakai, a Los Angeles-based food writer and the leader of our hoshigaki-making workshop (for the past eight years, she’s taught classes in person, but this year turned to virtual instruction). “Everything with hoshigaki happens slowly.”
Hoshigaki (from the Japanese terms hoshi, meaning dried, and kaki, persimmon) are dried persimmons, made with a centuries-old technique that’s both incredibly simple and ridiculously labor-intensive. Each persimmon must be peeled, tied, hung, and gently massaged every day for four to six weeks, until they reach the perfect level of dried-yet-pliant texture and darkly sweet, warm spice-y flavor. Over time, the fruit’s natural sugars crystallize into a powdery white skin across its surface, the prized “sugar bloom” that sets hoshigaki apart from more mundane dried fruit.
Persimmons are a beloved seasonal treat in Japan, where conservation methods like pickling and drying are common. “I remember driving through the countryside as a child and seeing rows and rows of deep red hoshigaki drying in the sun each autumn. They were just beautiful against the blue sky, like something out of a postcard,” says Sakai. For more than 50 years, her parents received a package of hoshigaki containing the highly coveted gozen shirogaki, or Imperial White persimmons, produced by a single family for more than 250 years and named in honor of Emperor Meiji, reportedly a big fan. “Toward the end of the year, we’re not only celebrating the harvest, but also looking ahead to the new year. Red brings fire, happiness, and good luck, which is why we give persimmons as a New Year’s gift,” Sakai explains.
She never expected to find hoshigaki in Southern California until encountering Jeff Rieger, owner of Penryn Orchards, a small farm in northern California that produced some 400 pounds of hoshigaki in 2020. He started making hoshigaki in 2003, after buying his orchard from a retired Japanese engineer who had planted eight varieties of persimmon trees on the property, part of a long farming tradition in the area. Japanese immigrants flocked to the Sierra foothills east of Sacramento in the 1920s. Many worked as farmers, taking advantage of the area’s uniquely acidic soil to plant fruit trees, and they maintained fruit preservation techniques like hoshigaki. After meeting Sakai at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, Reiger and his partner taught her the technique, which she in turn offers in her own culinary workshops.
The investment in time and effort has led some to compare hoshigaki to Kobe beef, which requires ranchers to massage their cattle daily to achieve rich marbling. While the comparison is catchy, in truth, making hoshigaki is a far more accessible process. “Anyone can make it — all you need is access to the fruit, a knife, and some string,” says Rieger. “But it takes an amazing amount of your own personal time, and you cannot cheat the process. So if someone gives you a box, it means they care about you enough to invest a lot of time and effort into your gift.”
Over the course of the year from hell, I’d cycled through a variety of ambitious cooking projects and hit something of a culinary low. After making bread, beans, elaborate lasagnas, curries, and casseroles, my appetite was gone, and I survived for weeks on frozen Trader Joe’s stir-fry and takeout.
Then, in November, trapped at home and desperate for a task that didn’t revolve around a screen, I saw Sakai offering virtual classes. I’ve been lucky enough to taste hoshigaki in Japan, and as a new resident of Los Angeles, I am still astonished by the abundant persimmons growing freely in people’s backyards. As a fan of simple routines for mental health, the prospect of making hoshigaki was enough to lure me out of my kitchen rut.
Though there are dozens of types of persimmons, the two most common are tall, teardrop-shaped hachiyas and squat fuyus that resemble miniature pumpkins. While fuyus can be eaten raw and crunchy, hachiyas are mouth-puckeringly astringent until they’re very ripe. They become soft enough to nearly burst through their skins into a sweet, oozing, jellyish goo. Hoshigaki are made from firm hachiyas with just the slightest touch of softness (and, ideally, a stem long enough to hang the fruit). I clipped fruit from a neighbor’s tree (“We never know what to do with them anyway,” they told me), but hachiyas are also easy to find at Asian grocers, farmers markets, and some Whole Foods and other chains.
As my classmates and I settled into our Zoom, Sakai walked us through the process. We trimmed around the top of the fruit to create a little shelf for looping the string, peeled the skin off like a potato, and tied a slipknot around each stem. For persimmons without a stem, Sakai recommends inserting a sterilized stainless-steel screw into the top of the fruit and tying the string to that.
Sakai instructed us to dip each persimmon in a pot of boiling water for a second or two to sterilize them. Others swear by a quick dunk in brandy or vodka, and still others skip this step entirely. “Hoshigaki is like making wine: There are a lot of different styles, different fruits, different vintages,” says Rieger. “Some makers do one thing. Some do another — there’s no right way.”
But one thing all hoshigaki makers can agree on is that mold is the enemy. It’s important to hang the hoshigaki somewhere dry and warm, where air can circulate. “No damp basements,” says Sakai. In Japan, the fruit is usually hung to dry from bamboo rods outdoors, but hanging them inside works too. “If you can find a dry, sunny window, that’s where they’re happiest,” she says. Improvising a bit, I used a laundry rack in front of a sliding glass door. Friends have simply tied the string to nails or hooks along a windowsill.
The persimmons hang, undisturbed, for a week to dry slightly before the massaging begins, though “massage” may be a bit of an overstatement. Sakai recommends starting with a gentle touch once a day, pressing ever-so-slightly before working your way up to a light massage (no squeezing!). Over time, the fruit will start to soften and shrivel, forming an elegantly craggy surface with deep grooves in the folded skin.
Timing will vary, not just with every batch, but from persimmon to persimmon, which is why it’s important to pay attention to the slow progress of each fruit. A small sugar crust may start to form after a few weeks, but the true sugar bloom can take months to occur, and it will continue to form even after the fruit is packed. Sakai says to pull the hoshigaki down when they’re firm but still a little pliable and conduct a taste test. The flesh should be chewy and moist, with a musky sweetness and floral aroma. Hoshigaki can be stored in an airtight container for over a year or given to friends who will appreciate the fruits of your labor.
Both Sakai and Rieger advise savoring hoshigaki as is, sliced into small pieces, while others suggest enjoying them alongside tea and a nubbin of aged strong cheese. Sakai also makes a traditional New Year’s salad with lightly seasoned daikon radish, carrots, and sliced hoshigaki.
Beyond their beauty and flavor, hoshigaki offer another reward: a slow, soothing process that feels like balm for this particular moment. I worked persimmon massages into my morning routine, between coffee and stretching, and found the tactile process a welcome contrast from my otherwise screen-oriented day. “It’s a way to get in touch with your food and with nature, which is so easy to miss out on in modern life,” says Sakai. “You can’t complain about pandemic fatigue when there’s so much you can do at home. Don’t sit in front of the TV. Go massage your persimmons.”