Food

The Patient Art of Drying Persimmons

Making hoshigaki, a traditional Japanese delicacy, is a seasonal ritual with transformative results
TIMEDecember 9, 2021

In Japan, to be alive in autumn is to live on persimmons. The sweet ones, crisp or soft, are everywhere. You’d know an astringent variety at first taste—you would spit it out immediately and run to rinse your mouth.

Or, if you were among those fruit magicians privy to the art of making hoshigaki, or dried persimmons, you’d happily take a crateful home and get to work.

Hoshigaki—the making, relishing, and sharing—are an inextricable part of Japan’s fall and winter landscape. A centuries-old preservation technique turns the season’s fruits into some of the most elegant confectionaries—and an impressive gift, traditionally given for the New Year.

It is an art indeed, to transform this bitter, inedible fruit into a sweet, supple delicacy, rich and floral and tinged with caramel and cloves. One cannot simply lay a persimmon to dry and walk away. The process requires time, sun, sometimes a bath of spirits, and other times a daily massage (for the fruit, mind you).

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Rich and chewy, with a caramel sweetness, hoshigaki are a cherished traditional delicacy meant to be savored slowly. (Shutterstock)

A Labor of Love

Hanging strings of hoshigaki are a common sight in rural Japan, where the making is a seasonal rite. The glowing curtains form an oasis of vermillion in an otherwise gray or snowy countryside. They’re tougher to find in cities, where the tannin-packed astringent varieties used to make them, called shibugaki, are harder to source. Then, too, the process of making them has many demands: The air should be pristine, they require enough space to hang for weeks, and the project is time-consuming as a whole. It’s no surprise the delicacy is not sold for cheap.

Still, there are enthusiasts who’ve taken on the task at home. Peter and Leith Schuetz, a couple in Kawasaki, Japan, in the greater Tokyo area, have been at it for seven years, hanging roughly 70 to 90 hoshigaki per season, turning otherwise inedible fruit from the trees in their urban orchard into homemade delicacies.

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Peter and Leith Schuetz have been making hoshigaki at home in Kawasaki, Japan, for seven years. (Melissa Uchiyama)

“We have six kaki [persimmon] trees,” they said when I visited their home in November. Clusters of vermillion fruit were visible from the window. “We picked them, hoping they’d be sweet, but we had to taste them to know.” As it turned out, their two stunted trees are sweet, while the four tall ones are bitter shibugaki. The fruits don’t become sweet, even at full ripeness; it’s as if they grow only to become hoshigaki.

They handed me a slice of fresh fruit from one of their bitter trees—the “before” shot of the dramatic transformation to come. The astringency walloped me in the mouth, bringing an unpleasant bitterness and almost hairy mouthfeel.

For Peter and Leith, finding their method took three attempts and hours of research and consulting more experienced makers. Humidity, airflow, and Tokyo’s ravenous crows were some of the issues to resolve. A neighbor provided some insight; so did the internet and their son.

After Peter picks the fruit and Leith runs with a long-handled net to catch each one, the prep is a two-hour operation from plopping the fruit onto the table to admiring the hanging strands. Leith washes and peels, sometimes trimming the persimmon crowns or sepals, before handing them off to Peter, who ties the stems to a plastic string.

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Peter and Leith Schuetz prepare their homegrown persimmons for making hoshigaki. (Melissa Uchiyama)

Next is a dunk in boiling water, to sterilize, followed by a bath of shochu, a Japanese distilled spirit, to help neutralize the tannins and mellow the bitterness. They trim any trailing strings, then hang them up indoors, with the windows left open, to dry.

They watch the persimmons change day to day, until finally, two weeks later, they remove each one and enjoy the fruits of their patience. Each bite is a revelation: A dry, chewy outside and an inside like a fruit caramel—soft, rich, and absurdly sweet.

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Hoshigaki in progress in Peter and Leith’s home office. (Melissa Uchiyama)

Hoshigaki in California

Ninety percent of the world’s persimmon production is in Japan, China, and Korea. Each culture has its own version and method of making dried persimmons: shibing in China, and gotgam in Korea.

Within the United States, California leads the way in production, thanks to Japanese American farmers who first introduced persimmons and their unique drying process. In America, the most common persimmon varieties are the squat fuyu and tear-shaped hachiya. Hoshigaki is most often made with hachiyas, which remain astringent and inedible until they are ripe to the point of being pudding-like.

The thriving persimmon orchards in California illuminate the Japan-United States connection. Some farms, such as Otow Orchard in Granite Bay, California, continue to be owned and operated by the original Japanese American farming families, having made it through the dark history of internment.

The Japanese persimmon has also found fertile ground at Frog Hollow Farm, a 280-acre farm in Brentwood, California, where hachiya, fuyu, and chocolate persimmons grow along with farmer Al Courchesne’s famous peaches, pears, and myriad other certified organic fruit.

Mario Hernandez, the farm’s culinary coordinator, was raised in Japan. Four or five years ago, he and farm assistant Rachel Sullivan began looking into turning the farm’s hachiyas into hoshigaki as a personal project.

“We basically taught ourselves through articles written about it, and over the years, started shaping our own best practices,” he said.

“The process of making hoshigaki is very involved and labor-intensive, but that’s what makes it worth it. It’s a symbol of caring and love in dried-food form—who wouldn’t want to learn how to do that?”

Sonoko Sakai, a Japanese American author, teacher, and cook, leads in-person and online hoshigaki workshops at her home workspace in Highland Park, California. Her technique differs from Peter and Leith’s, as well as other makers in Japan, in that it skips the shochu step and adds a daily massaging of the persimmons while they’re drying. The gentle pressure helps stave off moisture and coax the hidden, concentrated sugars to the surface, where they form a telltale white, chalky bloom when they’re ready. What other food process invites the maker to become so intimately aware of every fold, every textural change?

“Allowing the practice, from beginning to end, to take over can be restorative and even meditative,” Hernandez added later over email. “In the hurried world we live in, these small acts of taking care, taking time, and respecting the food’s culture and its history, can be acts of defiance and heroism.”

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Peter and Leith’s hoshigaki are ready in two weeks. (Melissa Uchiyama)

DIY Hoshigaki

You will need:

  • Underripe hachiya persimmons, or another astringent persimmon variety (shibugaki)
  • Long plastic strings or twine
  • Pot of boiling water
  • Shochu or similar distilled liquor (optional)

Choose and prep your persimmons. “Picking the fruit in a timely way is important,” says Sakai. “It is good to pick when they are orange all around, but just before they become soft.” Choose firm, unbruised fruit with at least 1/2 inch of the stem still attached, for easy hanging. Trim the leaves (sepals) at the top, and peel each fruit.

String up the persimmons by tying the string around the stems, leaving a persimmon-width space between each fruit for airflow. Leave enough string to tie up your persimmon rope, then trim off any extra that hangs.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Gently lower the rope of persimmons into the boiling water, keeping them submerged for 20 seconds. Optional: Remove from the boiling water and immediately dunk into shochu. Transfer to a colander to drain.

Hang your persimmons indoors, in a spot with periodic sun and plenty of cool airflow, or outdoors on a rack that you can move and take in at night or when it rains. Sakai suggests setting up a fan to leave on, increasing airflow to prevent mold and ward off flies. Lay down a tarp or newspaper underneath the persimmons to catch any fallen fruit or drips as they mature.

Check daily that each persimmon is secure and free of mold. Should small spots of black or white mold appear on the surface, Sakai suggests gently scraping them and dabbing with shochu or another alcohol. If you’re diligent with providing ample airflow and dry conditions and spot-treating with alcohol, no fruit should succumb to rot.

After a week of hanging, the persimmons should feel dry to the touch. Begin a daily massage, lightly pressing each persimmon with your fingers, moving downwards from crown to tip. This gradually becomes the massage step. As the fruits dry, gently increase the pressure of the massage. You’re encouraging healthy breakdown of the fruit and bringing sugar to the surface for that telltale white sugar bloom.

Remove in 2 weeks for still-soft and fleshy insides. Leave for another 1 or 2 weeks if you want firmer, drier hoshigaki. Leaving them up for 4 to 5 weeks total will yield what Sakai calls a chewy, raisin-like consistency. Cut a small piece to test; it should taste sweet. Find the consistency that’s tastiest to you; some people prefer squishy insides and some like the whole fruit to be more dehydrated.

Enjoy as is, taking small bites between sips of green tea. Or try them sliced, as Sakai recommends, paired perhaps with blue cheese as part of a vibrant cheese board. Bring to family and friends—this is love.

Store hoshigaki individually wrapped in a container or bag in the refrigerator or freezer for up to one year.

Additional Resources

Sonoko Sakai sells an illustrated instruction manual for making hoshigaki (with hand-drawn illustrations by Juliette Bellocq) at SonokoSakai.com

If you can’t source persimmons locally, Frog Hollow Farm offers mail-order hachiya and fuyu persimmons at FrogHollow.com

Melissa Uchiyama is a food writer, essayist, and teacher who leads creative writing camps in Tokyo. You can find Melissa at EatenJapan.com and on Instagram @melissauchiyamawrites.