Santos lives on Guam and writes TSOGB — The Scent of Green Bananas. We asked her to blog for us on the subject of “the aesthetics of food” because she takes such wonderful photos. And she’s also a contemporary design aficionado, which doesn’t hurt.
I have a rather…perplexed history with the persimmon, from my first mistake of eating an unripe hachiya variety (astringent and nasty), to my second mistake of eating a ripe hachiya (globular and blobular), to finally finding the relatively agreeable fuyu (pictured above), whose bold outward appearance belies its rather delicate taste and pervasive sweetness. I admit, I once found that one-note and boring, but now I find pleasing and possessing of hidden depths [insert conclusions about my changing taste in men, shoes and dishes here].
I love the way the persimmon looks. It’s one of the most beautiful fruit I’ve seen, complex in its apparent simplicity, both stately and understated. Its smooth curves and barely contained tumescence are offset by an almost severe oriental ornamentation of withering sepal. There is the color: that burnished hue of orange that recalls warning signals and antiquity, yet is also safe and alive. There is nothing perfect about it–it’s too fat, too squat, mottled, uneven, either far too hard or bruisingly soft if not caught at the right moment. Its exterior practically taunts you to admire it, but once open you are faced with a dense expanse of flesh with no real core that only confounds you more. You expect fire and heat, but get a gentle sweetness that reminds me of thin nectar sipped from wildflowers, and, a surprising touch of exotic spice, like a waft of Indian incense clinging to a shimmer of cool silk. elise tells tale that the best persimmons are picked under a full moon; the spiciness of which I speak is found in the freckled flesh finessed by such literal lunacy. If a persimmon was a person, it would be pre-Mick Jagger violated Sophie Dahl: all curves, bombast, and braggadocio, but lush and decadent, and inside as sweet and innocent as the BFG’s captive she was purported to be.
The question, time and again: what do you do with a persimmon? Eat it, of course. But how is it prepared? Elise’s solution: slice it, stab it, and devour it. This is the purest way, really, to take in the flavor, but it decimates its outward beauty, takes it out of its skin. Truly, there are no recipes that can preserve that. However, I wanted to explore the changing nature of the persimmon (specifically the fuyu, as it is typical for this region), through various cooking techniques, to find the beauty within.
Not surprisingly, the Japanese seem to understand persimmons. Aesthetics seem to have a higher priority in Japanese cuisine than most others, and one of the ideas is that of shibui, or beauty that is inherent in something that occurs naturally–not only in appearance, but also the taste, and presentation. Whilst this idea has austere connotations, I think it also denotes a respect for the natural state of an object, or as natural as it can be within a circumstance. The Japanese recipes I have seen do not try to treat the persimmon as a substitute for another fruit, nor do they mask its properties. It is for this reason that I turned to my two latest cookbooks, Eric Gower’s “the breakaway Japanese kitchen” and “shunju” by Takashi Sugimoto, for recipes that might best respect the quixotic nature of this fruit.
The first recipe I tried was an adaptation of Gower’s persimmon balsamic chicken: poached chicken breast, with a sauce made from ripe persimmon, balsamic vinegar, and a little olive oil. The fruit is thoroughly cooked; as the pulp and balsamic reduce, the fruit becomes completely unrecognizable as what it is, both in form and taste. It becomes a viscous, unctuous, pungent spiced jam that gains a sort of meatiness, extra body. Ask anyone, and it won’t be identified; however, take it away, and you no longer have a remarkable sauce. Surprisingly, the chicken (poached in a gingery broth) stands up well to the strong reduction, mellowing it out considerably, and benefiting from the sweet and sour blend.
The next recipe is a faithful reproduction of Gower’s persimmon yogurt salad with ginger, red onion, and mint. The persimmon isn’t cooked here, but peeled and sliced thinly, and combined with the other ingredients. Here the persimmon is somewhat recognizable, but its flavor is enhanced by the tart yogurt, the pungent onion, and refreshing mint. All the ingredients meld together yet remain wholly distinct.
The final recipe is an interpretation of Shunju’s persimmons and brown-sugar meringue: discs of brown sugar meringue layered with whipped cream and slices of persimmon soaked in simple sugar syrup. You would think that all the sugar combined with the natural sweetness of the fruit would make this an aching proposition, but no, it is simply a revelation. The sugar syrup makes the fruit softer in texture and brings out the natural spiciness; the brown sugar gives the meringues a mocha-like nuttiness; the cream lends just the right amount of rich silkiness. When you slide a forkful into your mouth, the whole thing collapses into a whisper of sweetness and light, of lush and longing for more.
Have I come to any conclusions? No. But if I did, this dessert could be the perfect one….