Over the last couple of months, you may have noticed orange bulbs hanging from the rafters, kitchens, or bars of certain Bay Area restaurants. They’re not avant-garde Christmas decorations that have yet to be taken down. They’re hoshigaki — persimmons dried using the traditional Japanese method of hanging them from a string.
For centuries, Japanese families have hung hoshigaki in their homes throughout the winter months, typically enjoying the dried persimmons as a snack or a sweet accompaniment to tea — or, occasionally, as an addition to a cheese plate or a salad. They’re a staple at New Year’s celebrations.
Tadayuki Furui, chef at Family Cafe in North Beach, recalls making hoshigaki as a child. “I grew up in the mountains of Japan and picking persimmons with my grandma. Every fall when the persimmons happen, all of the houses would start hanging hoshigaki by the windows,” he says. “It’s a really humble idea from generations of people.”
For many rural Japanese villages, including Furui’s, hoshigaki is a necessity. “It’s so cold and people are isolated, so they preserve all of their food,” says Jessica Furui, Tadayuki’s ex-wife and co-owner of Family Cafe. “It was not this super-fancy part of their food culture. They just happen to be really beautiful hanging there.”
Japanese immigrant farmers brought the hoshigaki tradition over to the Bay Area in the nineteenth century, but the practice mostly fell away after World War II and internment. Many Western chefs, however, have recently latched onto hoshigaki, whose popularity has risen through Instagram and food trend pieces. There’s also an over-abundance of Hachiya persimmon trees in California, but the astringent fruit is essentially inedible unless it’s super-ripened into an oozing, pudding-like texture. The solution? Preserve them.
The process is simple, if tedious: Persimmons are harvested under-ripe in late fall, peeled, and tied to string by the stem. Next, they’re hung up and dried for approximately one month. The fruits are given frequent, gentle massages to break up the pulp and release the natural fructose. Once the persimmons have shriveled and exhibit a dark, leathery skin with a soft coating of sugar — akin to a light dusting of snow — they’re ready. The finished hoshigaki is soft and chewy like a gummy, and slightly sweet, with hints of baking spice.
Siew-Chinn Chin of Oakland’s Ramen Shop explains that the dried persimmons aren’t really used in Japanese and Chinese cooking. “There’s just no integration. We use it as a snack,” says Chin, who is Malaysian-Chinese. But today, dozens of chefs in the Bay Area — Japanese or otherwise — are finding creative ways to incorporate hoshigaki into their menus. “Hanging 100 persimmons in your kitchen and watching them transform into dried fruit is amazing,” Chin says. “It’s an art form for us.”
At many Bay Area restaurants, the persimmons have recently finished drying. Here are a few places where you can find them on the menu.
In her first year with Rockridge’s Ramen Shop, pastry chef Krista Allvey is using Chin’s hoshigaki to make the persimmon pudding that’s currently on the menu. “Our version is a little different than what is usually seen in the world of persimmon pudding,” Allvey says. The pudding is baked in individual molds that allow it to get caramelized and crunchy on the outside. She steeps the hoshigaki overnight in St. George Baller Whiskey and then uses it to flavor an ice cream, served alongside the pudding with miso-glazed walnuts.
Chef Christopher Bleidorn of Birdsong first learned how to make hoshigaki while working at Benu, one of the Bay Area’s earliest adopters of the hoshigaki trend. While many chefs sterilize the persimmons in boiling water or sake before hanging them, Bleidhorn uses a bourbon-infused cedarwood, and then after hanging the fruit for a few weeks, completes the process in cedar boxes. “We keep them soft and we like to retain a lot of that bourbon cedar smell,” he says, explaining that the wood fusion is tied to the restaurant’s Pacific Northwest roots. Currently, Bleidorn is stuffing the hoshigaki with braised chestnuts and serving it with fermented chestnut sauce alongside duck. He’s also toying with the idea of a hoshigaki ice cream sandwich, calling the leathery, sugary dried persimmon “the perfect vessel” for it.
While Tadayuki Furui grew up making hoshigaki in Japan, it’s actually Jessica who makes it for Family Cafe, as she’s been doing throughout her nearly 20-year restaurant career. Over the next week or two, the restaurant will serve it in a Japanese-inspired pot de crème made with white chocolate custard, ginger syrup, and fresh whipped cream. The dessert gets topped with a medallion of hoshigaki, walnuts, and sea salt. Due to the limited amount of dried persimmons available, the pot de crème likely won’t be on the menu for longer than a couple of weeks.
Chef Curtis Di Fede of Napa’s contemporary izakaya, Miminashi, gets more elaborate with his hoshigaki. For starters, he makes 600 pounds of it, which he says costs $1,200 and will last throughout the year. For him, aesthetics are just as important as the fruit itself. Di Fede, who learned the technique from chef Hiro Sone (formerly of Napa Valley’s Terra), worked with a designer to create a curtain of persimmons — a work of art, really — in the dining room.
But because he hangs over 2,000 persimmons at once, it’s not feasible to massage them, which means a longer hang time of nearly three months, and the hoshigaki come out less gooey or jammy in texture. They’re are a staple in Di Fede’s pantry, used mostly in braises and salads. Starting this week, they’ll be integrated into a roasted pork belly braise, bringing a “sweet richness, a maple syrup-like flavor” to the dish.