A treasure to savor
Heart and hard work needed to make hoshigaki
By Jim Morris
Great things often take time and extraordinary craftsmanship. It took determined, fearless workers more than four years to build the Golden Gate Bridge. Michelangelo needed about the same time to painstakingly paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But each autumn in Placer County, a much quieter art form--one that honors family, farm and heritage--unfolds on a smaller stage.
Chris Kuratomi prepares to hang persimmons for sun drying, one step in the time-intensive Japanese tradition for hoshigaki.
With nimble fingers that rival the precision of a concert pianist, Chris Kuratomi methodically massages one persimmon after another with thousands more waiting in the wings.
Continuing a legacy that dates back generations, Kuratomi, her husband, Tosh, and her mother, Helen Otow, devote six weeks to producing a food that brings the term "labor intensive" to a new level. The hand harvesting, peeling, massaging and drying are all for the sake of hoshigaki, a dried persimmon that is as much art, history and endurance as it is niche farming at its finest.
"Hoshigaki" is Japanese for "dried persimmon" and is a diverse practice that dates back hundreds of years. So revered is it in its home country that it was immortalized in a documentary movie entitled "Red Persimmons." Japanese immigrants to California carried forth the tradition about a century ago, which continues today, thanks to a handful of family farms in Placer County.
"Hoshigaki is a centerpiece of this county's agriculture culture," said Joanne Neft, former director of the Placer County Agriculture Marketing Program and an outspoken advocate of farm preservation. "This art form tells us about who we were, who we are, and it is imperative that it is preserved."
At Otow Orchard in Granite Bay, this season is shaping into a potentially heavy crop but last season was a light year for hoshigaki, with production cut nearly in half from 2005 figures. The family harvested 10,000 persimmons, which produced 1,000 pounds of dried fruit. It takes 8 to 10 pounds of fresh fruit to make 1 pound of dried. The fruit commands $12 to $25 a pound, depending on quality, and is sold at select retailers in Sacramento and the Bay Area, on the farm and by mail order by calling the family at 916-791-1656.
The process begins when persimmons are harvested just before they reach full maturity, with the stem left intact to serve as an anchor for drying. After peeling by hand, a string is tied to the end of two pieces of fruit, which balance each other as they hang over a rack to dry. After about five days of drying, the fruit is massaged by hand every few days to ensure even ripening and to bring natural sugar crystals to the surface.
"It has always been a part of me," said Otow, who, at age 91, remains actively involved in the farm, which was founded by her parents in 1910. "I remember my parents made it, because that's what they did in Japan."
Otow Orchard spans about 40 acres in Granite Bay and has become surrounded by urban growth. The family continues to farm in stark contrast to the million-dollar mansions that surround them. Producing food from their own land, they say, has continually grown as a fundamental part of their lives, fulfilling something beyond a monetary return. Even if they were to start over somewhere else it would involve planting a new orchard, which wouldn't bear fruit for at least five years.
The family grows a diverse assortment of fruits and vegetables on their land, including Asian pears, apples, peaches, quince and eight varieties of persimmons. They use Hachiya and Gyombo varieties for drying, while selling the others fresh, including Chocolate and Cinnamon persimmons.
Over the decades, Otow has massaged hundreds of thousands of persimmons and can still be seen hanging fruit on drying racks or working at their farm stand.
Her son-in-law vividly remembers as a youngster in Pennsylvania, the expectation and delight when a package of hoshigaki would arrive from his grandfather in Loomis.
"We weren't allowed to eat it in one sitting," Tosh Kuratomi said. "We had to ration it out."
Mother and daughter Helen Otow, left, and Chris Kuratomi enjoy their many roles on the family farm, including massaging persimmons. This process ensures even ripening and brings natural sugars to the fruit's surface.
Hoshigaki has won over new fans in the Ibalio family of San Francisco, which makes a yearly visit to the farm to load up on fresh produce.
"Oh wow! This is the first time I have tasted dried persimmons," Emilia Ibalio said during last fall's visit. "This is the most delicious thing that I have ever tasted."
Tosh Kuratomi said hoshigaki is especially popular at New Year's, as customers believe it symbolizes prosperity and long life.
He said those who haven't experienced this fruit are in for a treat.
"More than anything, it's the texture that we feel sells the hoshigaki," he said. "There should be an immediate dose of sweetness and the persimmon flavor. We like to have that melt-in-your-mouth, slightly gushy feeling when you eat it."
While hoshigaki has great sentimental value, Tosh Kuratomi said extensive labor costs make it not the most profitable business to run.
"We figure we make two or three dollars an hour, four bucks if we're lucky," he said. "As soon as we hire somebody to help us, it drops back to about two dollars an hour, and then we have to consider picking up the volume or increasing the price."
The third-generation farmer said he gains a lot of non-monetary rewards from the work.
"All I ever wanted to do as a kid was to drive a tractor," he said. "Here I am 61 years old driving one. It's really a great life."
Despite the joys that come from this lifestyle, Tosh Kuratomi said one of the main reasons he's staying put is the insistence of his children, Toshio, Maya and Michie.
"Years ago when my in-laws passed 70 and were going to retire and cut back on the orchard, it was our children who were afraid it would be sold and divided up," he said. "They really pushed us to make the decision that we wouldn't let it go no matter what. It just took us over. That tradition set in on us."
The children help on the farm in between their jobs and school, and they've shown an interest in continuing this family tradition for a fourth generation.
With firm intentions in place that will maintain their orchards, the family uses interesting ways to preserve their precious crops. They practice a generations-old technique of applying four to five drops of vodka to the stems of their Gyombo, or Hyakume, persimmons to improve their sweetness and use tiny amounts of the alcohol on a toothbrush to battle any minute spot of mold on the fruit. They also strategically place newspapers around the drying persimmons to keep scavengers away.
In the end, they have come to realize that positive thinking is as important as hard work to maintain the business.
"My wife and I call this faith-based agriculture," said Tosh Kuratomi. "Even if we don't do everything right, it's amazing that things just seem to line up each year. We just lean back and say there has to be a higher authority involved in all of this. We're just along for the ride and figure that we better enjoy it."
Otow said she hopes she will be able to work at the farm for years to come.
"I'm happy here," she said. "Even though we don't make a lot of money, I get pleasure out of seeing trees blooming and then producing fruit. You feel like you're accomplishing something."
Jim Morris is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation and administrative producer of the popular weekly television program "California Country." He can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.