| Picking and soaking persimmons
One morning in October, at the corner of Kim Long market, many people gathered around two baskets of Hue persimmons of about a dozen kilos. The seller, around 70 years old, shouted loudly: "Buy some, these are my home-grown persimmons. The tree is 70 years old and very tall. I had to ask my grandchild living down the street to climb up and pick them."
That was just one of several persimmon sellers I met at the market. In the fall, if I want to eat Hue persimmons, I go to Kim Long. In many garden houses and palaces, there are still shadows of ancient persimmons sheltering on mossy roofs. If you are lucky, you will meet a few women with bamboo baskets leisurely coming out of their homes and will be able to buy them immediately along with the origin story of the persimmon tree in each garden.
My friend who loves garden products often jokes with persimmon sellers that they are "QR code" run on rice. No need to scan the code, customers can hear a vivid description of the age, quality of the fruit and the persimmon soaking process.
Persimmon trees are often found in garden houses and palaces in Hue alongside mangosteen, lychee, and Thanh Tra pomelo trees... Most of the persimmons grown are egg-shaped persimmons, seedless persimmons and a few are square persimmons, some of which are approximately a hundred years old. Growing persimmons do not require much care, and the amount of fruit depends on the weather. On the full moon day, among countless regional fruits on sale, Hue persimmons still have their own appeal.
At Kim Long Market, there is old Lady Hai who specializes in selling Hue persimmons. Her house in Huong Long ward (Hue City) has nearly a dozen persimmon trees, and the entrance to the house has countless persimmon branches with yellow fruits growing in the sun. These days, anyone who wants to eat persimmons should go to her shop.
She said that soaking and incubating persimmons is very difficult, there are many steps and it must be clean and safe so that buyers can feel secure, because the brand "Lady Hai’s persimmons" is famous in this market. She lined the plastic box with green banana leaves and then placed persimmons high in layers.
The egg-shaped persimmon is red and as small as a shiny chicken egg, so hold it gently to avoid cracking the peel. The seedless persimmon is oblong, dark pink or dark yellow, with 4 small ears on top, and inside the fruit there are 8 sections.
This was how I temporarily identified characteristics through my many years of eating persimmons at Ms. Hai's place, but looking in the books, I absolutely could not find any mention of Hue persimmons. Hue persimmons are small so they are light in weight. If you buy about two kilos, there would be around forty or fifty fruits that you could eat all week long.
At the palace worshiping Princess Ngoc Son on Nguyen Chi Thanh Street (Hue City), the ancient persimmon tree shining in front of the rockery is the most prominent character in this palace in the fall. The egg-shaped persimmon tree is not tall but has a wide canopy and dense fruit. Around October, the fruit turns yellow and red; the tree is like a giant umbrella with countless small lanterns radiating warm colors to the old house.
Every time there is a pass-over anniversary, Ms. Nguyen Thi Suong picks and ripens persimmons and offers them to her ancestors to show her respect. “When the children come home, they often pick the fruits. This is also the tree that gives the most fruit in this garden. A few people came to ask for provining to plant, and my husband also wanted to propagate it to spread Hue's precious tree species," Ms. Suong said.
Hue's gardens are mostly mixed gardens, with a little bit of everything, meeting family needs and creating basic landscapes. The front yard is for the owner to enjoy with flowers and fruits; the back garden for the hostess to take care of family meals. The persimmon tree has a beautiful shape and adorns the house, so it is often placed in a solemn position in the front.
Around September to October, on a persimmon tree, there are three colored fruits: green, yellow, red. In November and December, the weather turns to winter, the persimmon branches shed their leaves, creating an ancient bonsai resiliently soaked in cold rain. In January and February, the dry branches burst into bloom, and the petals fall, carpeting the porch. This is why persimmons are regarded as an ornamental and fruiting tree of "Hue nobles".
With Hue persimmons, even when red, the picked fruit cannot be eaten immediately but must wait until it is ripe. Eating persimmons also requires patience, because if you rush, you won't be able to enjoy the delicious taste of this fruit. Hue people eat persimmons and absorb the sweet philosophy after the arduous journey of soaking them through cold water and hot lime water.
According to many people, persimmon trees in this country were acclimatized like the delicious fruits that were brought to the Imperial Palace in the past and then spread to the people. In the Kham Dinh Dai Nam records, there are hundreds of types of precious products presented as tribute, but there is no record of any province offering persimmon, the only regulation was that Thua Thien and Gia Dinh would buy persimmon jam to bring to the palace.
In the memory of Hue researcher Nguyen Xuan Hoa, on Tet holiday, persimmon jam was extremely rare and only wealthy families could afford it. “It's like a dried apple but still holds sweet, supple syrup. People press the persimmon to flatten it, and the outside is covered with white powder. My mother cut this persimmon jam into eight to ten pieces, divided a little for each child. I would keep it forever and didn't dare eat it."
Hue people in the past loved persimmon trees, especially seedless persimmons. It is precious because you cannot use seeds to sow but must propagate by provining. Legend has it that this persimmon variety was brought by the great poet Nguyen Du as a gift to the family of a mandarin - the owner of a famous garden in Hue. This persimmon tree still produces fruit today, the taste is as delicious as ever and is loved and preserved by the homeowner.
Having a solemn position in the house, adorning the living space, the persimmon tree contributes to enriching the spiritual life value of Hue people. Over time, the number of persimmon trees has dwindled because of storms and the variety has degenerated. Therefore, old persimmon trees are becoming increasingly rare.
Now, in some garden houses in the inner city and in Kim Long and Huong Ho areas, in the afternoons there are still bustling scenes of families adorning their persimmon trees, soaking persimmons, and anxiously waiting for persimmons to ripen. The sounds of old people and children in the yard make people think of a picture of a happy reunion. High above, the persimmons light up the humid, sniffling weather of October. Down in the yard, people drink tea, eat cakes, wipe fruits to put in sealed bags, and advise patience: "Eat the longan in May in a hurry. Calmly sit and wait for soaked persimmons in October.”
Story and photos: T. NINH