If there’s one fruit to represent fall, we’d have to go with gam (감), or persimmons. Juicy and sweet, with hints of pumpkin and spices, persimmons are beloved in Korea and just about everywhere else. Like many modern fruits and vegetables, persimmons originated in China and made their way over to Korea and Japan at least within the last 1,000 years (a Goryeo dynasty treatise from 1138 A.D. records persimmon harvesting methods).
Persimmons are deeply rooted into Korean traditions: We use the wood for furniture and carving, the leaves for tea and the unripe fruits for dying clothes. It’s not uncommon to see a persimmon tree or two outside of people’s homes, even in cities, and though the fruit is harvested every fall, it’s traditional to leave a few for the magpies—it’s ggachi bap (까치 밥, a magpie meal).
Of the persimmons you’ll find in marts and markets today in Korea, there are generally three main varieties, as shown above: 1. Dan-gam (단감, often called fuyu persimmons in English); 2. Daebong-gam (대봉감, often called hachiya persimmon in English) and 3. Hongsi (홍시, soft persimmon).
Dan-gam is the first type of persimmon to ripen and show up in markets here in Seoul. It’s best eaten when firm, or when the flesh gives just slightly to the touch—it has a delightful crunch and, compared to hongsi and daebong-gam, is less intensely sweet and somewhat fresher tasting. A variety of dan-gam called ddeolbeun-gam (떫은감) has been grown in Korea for centuries, though it’s pretty tannic and usually requires a little treatment (such as soaking in salt water) before eating. The variety we currently consume in Korea was brought over from Japan around 1910, and is much sweeter.
How to eat: Peel and eat fresh, or add to salads for a sweet and crunchy touch (try replacing apples with dan-gam in your salad recipes). You can eat dan-gam when they get a little soft, but don’t try to make dried persimmons with these—the flesh simply melts away.
How to store: To help your dan-gam soften, store them out in the open. To keep your them crunchy, store in an airtight container in your kimchi refrigerator, vegetable crisper, or veranda.
Daebong means “large mountain” in Chinese characters—you can see how the graceful, arching peak of this fruit resembles the mountains in Korea. This variety of persimmon was fairly rare until recently. In fact, daebong was one of the fruits offered to the king in the Joseon Dynasty as a seasonal tribute from the southern parts of the kingdom. When fully ripe, this tender treat is incredibly sweet. It’s also a little fibrous, which helps keep the fruit together and makes daebong the ideal variety for got-gam (곶감, dried persimmons), an important winter dessert.
How to eat: Don’t even think about eating these when they’re hard! Seriously, your tongue will go numb from the tannins. Like hongsi, daebong are categorized as “astringent” fruits, and are best eaten when soft and almost pudding-like to the touch.
How to store: The best place to store daebong-gam is an earthen jar (항아리) on your veranda or in a storage shed. Otherwise, use a thick cardboard box: Place the firmest daebong on the bottom, leaf-side down. Add a layer of newspaper and a layer of something firm, like cardboard, and add your next layer of daebong, again leaf-side down. If you want to speed up the softening process, add a couple of apples to your box of daebong (the ethylene gas produced by the apples helps trigger fruits to soften).
Rather than a varietal name, hongsi (pronounced “hongshi”) is more of a descriptive term for the level of softness that the persimmon has attained. In Chinese characters, “hong” means “red,” indicating how ripe the hongsi has become, and “si” means “persimmon.” You may sometimes also see the terms yeonsi (연시), which describes a similarly soft persimmon, though typically yeonsi fruits have been picked and ripened off the branch, while hongsi is typically ripened on the branch. Either way, the fruits are soft and pudgy to the touch, with paper-thin skins that sometimes burst in your bag on the way home. But these little treasures are worth a little collateral damage—hongsi is considered an especially sweet fruit. In Korean, if you say that someone is “laying beneath a persimmon tree, waiting for a hongsi to drop into their mouth” (감나무 밑에 누워서 홍시 입 안에 떨어지기를 기다린다), you’re saying that someone is waiting for sweet rewards without putting in the work.
How to eat: Hongsi are sweet and easy to pull out of their skins, purée, and use as a replacement for molasses or other liquid sweeteners in your baking. You can also add it to savory dishes as a mild sweetener—it can even be added to kimchi, though keep in mind that the color of your kimchi will darken.
How to store: Eat these right away. If you want to save them to eat later, freeze them and eat them later as a frozen snack or dessert (don’t try to thaw them first; they’ll become a mushy mess).
Got-gam are persimmons that are hung and dried for weeks at the end of fall and into winter—they become a deliciously dense, sugary treat with an intense, jammy fruitiness. That white powder is all natural sugars from within the fruit. Think of these as an all-natural candy that Koreans have been making for hundreds of years. There’s even an old folktale called “The Tiger and the Dried Persimmon” about a tiger who mistakes a got-gam for a fearsome beast after it overhears a mother hush her bawling baby with the dried fruit.
How to eat: Got-gam are very sweet, so pair them with mild, unsweetened teas. You can also balance the sweet flavors by adding nuts like walnuts.
Recipe: Hodu got-gam mari (호두곶감말이, walnuts rolled in dried persimmon)
How to choose: These days, you’ll often see very bright orange got-gam in the market. Most of these have been fumigated with sulfur dioxide, which stops the natural tannins in the fruit from oxidizing and turning the flesh dark. Legally, got-gam cannot contain more than 2g of sulfur dioxide per kilo of fruit, so it is considered safe for human consumption. But if you see a more wrinkled, dark got-gam at the market or on the table, don’t worry—those were made using a more traditional method without sulfur. So show those got-gam a little love, too!