The many faces of Korean Persimmons 감

No.
This is not a tomato. 🍅

No.
It’s not advisable to use this fruit for classic pasta sauce. 🍝
[But go ahead and try if you feel adventurous.]*

Even though this fruit has a spherical shape and smooth, shiny skin with deep orange color, it has little kinship with tomatoes. 🚫🍅 It is the fruit of a deciduous tree, scientifically called Diospyros kaki and referred to as persimmon in English.

The persimmon has various names in Korea. The generic term used for a persimmon in Korean is 감 (gam), although this changes according to the fruit’s appearance and properties. But overall, it’s an ideal snack and dessert, and that while being natural, vegan and gluten free! 🌱🚫🌾 Read on to find out more about this diverse fruit and learn about the different methods of enjoying it the “Korean way”. 🇰🇷🍅🌳

Although there are several ways of eating persimmons in Korea, none of them involves heat. 🚫🔥 Koreans consume them raw, always! Either fresh, dried or frozen. [I wonder why Koreans never use them in cooking… 🤔]

What kinds of persimmons exist in Korea?

As mentioned, persimmons are a kind of fruit that has many faces! 🧑‍🦰👨‍🦰👩‍🦰 And each variety of persimmon has its own, individual name.

At first, let’s take a good look at persimmons. 🍅👀 In terms of appearance, a distinguishing feature is the shape. One can largely categorize between two basic shapes: Heart-shaped versus flat and round (similar to common tomatoes). 🟠🧡 If you compare these two types directly, the heart-shaped persimmons are often larger.**

Most striking is probably the color because persimmons are typically orange. 🟠 In fact, the color of most persimmons ranges between a light yellow-orange and an intensive red-orange. 💛🧡❤️ Originally, the orange tone indicated the fruit’s maturity, because unripe persimmons are green. But these days, even varieties that are edible when green are being produced! “Taechu” (태추 太秋) is such a new persimmon cultivar. 🟢 On the inside, again, most persimmons are orange! Their flesh is either a milky shade of orange or a deep orange that’s translucent.

After examining the fruit from a safe distance, let’s get closer. 👉🍅👈 When you touch it, is it hard? Is it soft? Depending on variety but also on degree of ripeness, each fruit will feel different! Accordingly, you will experience different textures when you bite into it: A firm fruit will have a crisp texture and be somewhat dry. A fruit which is soft to the touch is most likely soft inside, and sometimes also slightly juicy. A very ripe persimmon is very soft and tender – outside as well as inside! That’s also the stage when the flesh is translucent (instead of milky and opaque) and feels somewhat mushy or slimy, yet fibrous.

So what will you taste? 🍅👄 The primary flavor of persimmons is sweet. Whether it tastes sweet or very sweet, once more, depends on the cultivar and maturity. 🍬 There is not a hint of sourness! However, another typical experience that can be associated with persimmons is an astringent taste. 💢 [If you don’t know what that is, here’s an attempt at describing the sensation: Astringency feels as if your mouth dries out and your tongue shrivels. It seems like there is suddenly fur on your tongue! (Germans call this “pelzig”.) 👅 It can also be perceived as bitter. Generally, it is an unpleasant mouthfeel. 😖] Accordingly, one can distinguish between astringent and non-astringent persimmons. But astringent persimmons are actually not properly ripe, and should not be eaten yet! The undesired astringency is caused by some kinds of tannin (components present in certain plants, e.g. acorns, black tea) which break down during the ripening process.

Common types of persimmon in Korea

Now, let me introduce you to some particular persimmons and their properties! Note that their names usually contain the syllables gam 감 or si 시 (Korean reading of the characters 柿, 柹 and 枾), all of which mean “persimmon”.

“Dan-gam” 단감 persimmon, cut

To begin with, a persimmon that is full of tannins and accordingly tastes astringent is considered as Ttaeng-gam (땡감). A fruit named Ttaeng-gam can have various shapes and colors, and is the basis for other types of persimmons and persimmon-based foods. 🧑‍🦰 In Korea, you will hardly find this kind of persimmon offered for sale since it is not ripe and not ready for consumption, yet. Tteolbeun-gam (떫은 감) is a common way of referring to such a persimmon as well, using the adjective 떫다 “to be astringent” to indicate its primary taste.

Unlike most other persimmons, Dan-gam (단감) can be consumed when appearing unripe and hard. This persimmon cultivar is firm, it has a crisp texture, and it tastes sweet without a strong astringent flavor. Here, dan 단 can refer either to “sweet” (derived from 달다) or “hard” (because of 단단하다). Its color is somewhere in between greenish, yellowish or plain orange and the shape is flat and round. 🟡👨‍🦰🟠 With time, its flesh softens and the color turns orange like most other persimmons.

Another common variety is Daebong (대봉 大峯; also Daebong-gam 대봉감 or Daebong-si 대봉시). This kind of persimmon is normally sold and enjoyed slightly soft or very tender. Its main properties are the heart-like shape and its rather large size – this is also expressed in its name which translates to “Big Peak” (peak referring to the pointed tip when the fruit is turned upside-down). Besides, the color of a Daebong persimmon is either orange or deep orange. 🧡👩‍🦰❤️

Hongsi 홍시 ripening on a tree.

Hongsi (홍시 紅柹), on the other hand, is any kind of persimmon that’s consumed when fully ripe and extremely soft. Hongsi literally means “red persimmon” and describes this persimmon’s ideal state: Bright red-orange all over. When it has reached that color, the persimmon has matured naturally over a long time which reduces its tannins. Ripening either took place with the fruit still hanging on the tree, or after harvest by leaving the fruit rest undisturbed. As a result, the fruit loses the initial astringent taste, develops a sweet flavor, the color intensifies and the flesh becomes tender. This can apply to both round as well as heart-shaped persimmons. 🔴👩‍🦰❤️ Apart from the color, most characteristic of Hongsi is that it is very soft. Thus, it needs to be handled with care as not to damage the skin, otherwise its pulp oozes out!

Yeonsi 연시 sold at a traditional market. October 2019.

The name Yeonsi (연시 軟柹) implies that the persimmon is soft, originating from the word 연하다 for “soft, gentle, tender”. As opposed to Hongsi which softens naturally, the term Yeonsi is applied to a persimmon that ripened artificially. In order to lower the level of astringent tannins, it can be treated with ripening gases (e.g. ethylene), cold air or other methods.*** In supermarkets and stores, industrially produced Yeonsi is usually a flat-shaped persimmon. Since the fruit matured via an artificial process and in a controlled environment, it has softened evenly and turned completely orange. 🟠👩‍🦰🔴 You also need to be very careful when handling it, as it bruises easily and can get squished during transport. [This has happened to me so many times…] Typically, Yeonsi is so soft you can peel off the skin with your fingers – it feels like thin parchment paper!

Another persimmon that you may encounter in Korea is Bansi (반시 盤柿). Although the name can be understood as “flat persimmon” or “plate persimmon”, its shape is similar to the regular flat and round types of persimmon. Its distinctive trait is that it is seedless. 👩‍🦰🟠👨‍🦰 Rather than being a variety on its own, however, the seedless persimmon is a regional specialty of Cheongdo County (청도군). Since only female persimmon trees grow in that valley, their flowers are not pollinated and the fruits do not develop seeds.****

Prices of persimmons vary largely and depend on criteria such as region, cultivar, quality and season. One fruit costs between 500 to 1500 KRW. As a rule of thumb, a large, heart-shaped persimmon is more expensive than the smaller and flat persimmons. But it is double in size, too.

How do you eat Korean persimmons? How do Koreans eat persimmons?

Persimmons are always eaten raw in Korea. Regardless, they still offer a diverse flavor experience! The flavor varies not only with the type of persimmon but also with the particular state of the fruit. In a few words, persimmons are mainly enjoyed fresh, dried or frozen. Let’s see how they are eaten the Korean way!

Eating fresh persimmons 💦

The easiest and most evident way of enjoying Korean persimmons is when they are fresh. How do you eat a persimmon exactly? Start by removing the leaf-like top of the fruit (Korean: 감꼭지; botanically referred to as calyx), which will be hard, fibrous and either green or dark brown by the time you plan to consume the fruit.

When you open a persimmon, you will notice that there are lighter and spongy fibers in the center. You might want to remove that inner core – some Koreans believe it causes constipation.

Dan-gam (단감) peeled, deseeded and cut.

Besides, persimmons often have a couple of seeds inside, which are smooth and flat but rather chunky. Avoid eating the seeds as they are too hard to chew, too big to swallow and too tasteless to enjoy. [Yup, I did try to eat them out of curiosity! 🤓] Overall, persimmon seeds are no fun to eat. But at least, they can be removed easily.

Now, you may ask yourself: Can you eat the skin of persimmons? Yes, you can. But most Koreans don’t. It’s a question of individual preference. The skin has a particular texture, which changes the mouthfeel, and thus it is usually discarded. Most commonly, a persimmon is peeled and then cut into bite-sized pieces. [Personally, I enjoy eating them whole by biting into the fruit like an apple!] 🔪

Eating a soft persimmon (type Hongsi 홍시) with a spoon.

Very soft persimmons such as Hongsi and Yeonsi, on the other hand, cannot be peeled but are rather cut or torn in half. You can then scoop out the pulp with a spoon – the texture may remind you of pudding or custard! 🥄 After hollowing out a halved persimmon, you will end up with the skin and a couple of seeds. The skin feels waxy, slightly leathery and tears easily. Note also that you might need to wash your fingers after eating soft persimmons – it can be a messy process! 💦👌😅 [For reference, check out the eating videos below!]

Eating dried persimmons ☀️

In Korea, persimmons have been preserved using various drying techniques. Before the invention of high-tech machines which allow dehydrating and freeze-drying, more than two types of dried persimmons have been developed. While drying helps to increase shelf life, it is also a method for removing tannins and thus makes persimmons more palatable!

Gam-mallaengi 감말랭이 (left) and Gotgam 곶감 (right)

Gam-mallaengi (감말랭이) are dried pieces of persimmon. Before drying, the persimmons are usually peeled, deseeded and cut into large pieces. Due to the loss of moisture, the pieces shrivel up and get smaller.

Ideally, their texture is soft, yet springy and chewy. In Korean, such a texture is described as “mallang” (말랑 / 말랑하다). Yet, the name “persimmon mallaengi” seems to be derived from mallida 말리다 (to dry). Home-made Gam-maellangi, by the way, tend to be harder and drier than industrially produced ones. Note also that factory-produced Gam-mallaengi may contain additives to preserve the color.

You can easily find packaged Gam-maellaengi in supermarkets, on traditional markets and online – with an average price of 10.000 KRW for 400g. They are a pleasant treat to chew on and usually enjoyed as a sweet snack.

The most traditional type of dried persimmon is Gotgam (곶감), which is also referred to as Geonsi (건시 乾枾) or Gwansi (관시 串柹) in old or historical literature.

To make Gotgam, persimmons are peeled, the leafy top is trimmed and the fruits are hung up at a well-ventilated location, where they can dry slowly. With time, the fruit loses moisture and consequently shrinks. Simultaneously, the fruit’s color darkens and its surface wrinkles. The shape of the final fruit varies, since the dried persimmon may be flattened like disks or pulled lengthwise into an elongate shape.

Different to Mallaengi, Gotgam are made from the whole fruit including the seeds, which have also shrunk and become very hard. Besides that, they can be distinguished by color: Gotgam have turned dark orange or brown during the maturing process, whereas Mallaengi are often a brighter tone of orange.

In addition to supermarkets, online- and open-air markets, you can buy Gotgam from street vendors who sell them in winter when the newest Gotgam of the season are available. Note that one Gotgam, which represents an entire fruit, can cost as much as 1000 KRW on average. Gotgam are a classic item on the offering table during ancestral rites and holidays, which speaks of its long history in Korean culture. [Btw, Lunar New Year is coming up!!!] Apart from that, you can find Gotgam served as a snack or in sophisticated desserts, for example at traditional Korean restaurants or tea houses.

Another type of dried persimmon is Ban-geonsi (반건시 半乾柹), which translates to “half-dried persimmon”. These are normally whole, peeled fruits similar to Gotgam, but they have been dried for a shorter amount of time. As a result, their color is brighter, their flesh is more tender and more moist. The consistency is almost like jelly! Because they perish faster, Bangeonsi are often stored in the freezer and then thawed before consumption.

Dried persimmons, in general, have a wrinkly surface and tend to develop white or light gray speckles on top of it. Most frequently, this is not mold but simply sugar which settled on the outside. The sugar content of ripe and dried persimmons is very high! There are even two Korean words to describe this white bloom: Siseol (시설 枾雪) and sisang (시상 枾霜), which literally mean “persimmon snow” and “persimmon frost”, respectively. ❄️ [Isn’t that poetic? 🥰] If the look of the surfaced sugar bothers you, you can rinse it off with water.

Although dried persimmons are storable for longer than fresh fruits, it’s advisable to keep them in a very cool place such as the fridge or the freezer. They will get firmer with time, since they lose more moisture.

Process of making Gotgam 곶감. At Temple Cheoneunsa in Gurye (전라남도 구례군 천은사), 2018.

Eating frozen persimmons ❄️

Many people have tried freezing fruits as a method of preservation! How many of you have tried and actually enjoyed eating those fruit while they are still frozen? 🙋‍♀️🙋‍♂️🙋 In the case of persimmons, you will end up with something that appears like sherbet, vegan ice cream and shaved ice! It is so easy to make this at home, if you have fully ripe persimmons at hand – particularly Hongsi and Yeonsi are ideal types here! Simply pop them into the freezer (whole or in pieces) and wait until they are frozen. It’s a perfect treat during hot and humid Korean summers! Just let the frozen persimmon melt slightly until soft enough to scrape it with a spoon. 🥄 You literally shave off fine, crystalline persimmon pulp. Instant ice cream. Natural sherbet. Unprocessed. 🍨😍🍧 You can purchase frozen persimmons under the name 아이스 홍시 (literally “ice Hongsi“) in supermarkets and online for private consumption. Small, frozen persimmons even used to be sold as an ice cream-like snack in convenience stores. [No idea why it disappeared now.] On occasion, you may find frozen persimmon offered as a dessert item in a Korean cafe.

After all, persimmons are monochrome but not monotonous! 🟡🟠🔴❤️🧡💛 Can you believe above different faces belong to the same fruit?! 🧑‍🦰👩‍🦰👨‍🦰 In summary, fresh persimmons can taste astringent, so they are best enjoyed when properly ripe. Any unpleasant mouthfeel caused by tannins disappears during maturing or drying processes. Not only can persimmons withstand frost, but it actually makes the fruits softer and sweeter. The cold initiates or speeds up the ripening process, and this same effect may be intentionally evoked by freezing the fruit. Far more than methods of preserving or storing, Koreans apply various techniques to soften and mature persimmons until they have reached the desired consistency as well as sweetness and astringency or bitterness are reduced.

Persimmons play a role in many more aspects of Korea’s cuisine and food-related culture [but covering those would blow up the size of this post too much]! Let me just briefly mention persimmon leaf tea (감잎차), persimmon vinegar (감식초) as well as their use as a natural dye. ☕️ On top of that, persimmons have a long history in Korea and possess a meaningfulness that is also displayed in traditional Korean art and folklore. 🇰🇷🇰🇵 As a matter of fact, both Hongsi and Gotgam are mentioned multiple times in the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty (조선왕조실록) and they were recorded as gifts presented to the Chinese Qing Empire during the 17th century.***** 🍅👑

For me personally, persimmons are one of the most significant fruits of Korean fall and winter. 🍂🍅❄️ Those bright orange orbs hang on trees, whose leaves steadily disappear, and the fruits’ glossy skin glistens in the wintry sun. 🌞 The mere sight of them exudes an air of warmth and promises sweet joy.

And what are your experiences with persimmons? Did you ever try heating persimmons? Do you know any dishes that are made from persimmon? I would love to hear your story! 🧡🤗🧡

Persimmon tree in Seoul, December 2019.

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Additional notes of the author

*) Reference to a personal anecdote: European friends who visited Korea bought a box of persimmons mistaking them for tomatoes, because they wanted to cook pasta with tomato sauce.

**) In Germany, the flat-round varieties are sometimes referred to as “Sharon”, whereas the heart-shaped persimmons are known as “Kaki”.

***) More on common methods for ripening astringent persimmons: Korean source.

****) More information on the official page about the Bansi Festival: Korean source.

*****) Online database of the “Annals of Joseon Dynasty” (in Korean), e.g. entry 인조실록 31권, 인조 13년 11월 4일 경술 2번째기사 (1635)

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