3 November 2013
My wife and I went to an art show last weekend in an old temple located somewhere in the hutongs behind Beijing’s old drum tower (as a friend whom we met there said, “great space, great mulled wine, average art”). We went for a walk around the area afterwards, and I spied this kaki tree in full fruit peeping over a high wall.
For those of my readers who can’t quite make out the tree in my picture, here is a much better take of the same species.
I realized that it was that time of the year again, when the kaki are fully ripened and ready to eat. And I suddenly noticed that all the Chinese grocers were filled with kaki.
I’ve noted in a much earlier posting that my wife brought much more food and culinary novelty to our marriage than I did. One of these was the kaki, which I first saw in Liguria during one of our trips out to the sea in the late months of the year.
My mother-in-law was very fond of this fruit, but I must say I have never been convinced by it. I appreciate neither its mushiness nor its sweetness. I’ve eaten it but rarely during the years since I first discovered it, and every time I have been reinforced in my lack of enthusiasm for the fruit.
Without really thinking about it much, I assumed that this tree and its fruit were native to the Mediterranean. I adopted the Italian spelling cachi as the original spelling. Imagine my surprise, then, when several years after my initial discovery of the fruit, we came across the tree laden with fruit during the trip which my wife and I made to Japan, and our Japanese companion informed us that it was called kaki. Kaki! The scales fell from my eyes. This must have originally been a Japanese tree, which was brought to Italy at some point – which it was, I have since discovered, back in the 1800’s. Another botanical species, like the ginkgo which I’ve written about earlier, which was trekked back to Europe during the first era of globalization.
Actually, I was wrong again! Because, like the ginkgo, the kaki is actually native to China and at some point got transported over to Japan – along with Buddhism perhaps? So if I were a linguistic purist I should switch to calling it shizi, which is its Chinese name. But I’m getting old and set in my habits. Kaki it will remain.
Talking of names, English-speaking readers may be asking themselves what the English name of the tree and fruit is. It was years before I asked myself that question and looked up cachi in an Italian-English dictionary. Persimmon, that’s what it is! Persimmon … that was a word which had hovered on the far horizons of my linguistic knowledge. I’d heard it spoken or maybe seen it written, I knew vaguely it was a fruit, but that was it. It sounds such an upper-class English name, don’t you think? Like Fitzwilliam or the Duke of Buccleuch. So it was another surprise to me to discover that persimmon is actually an English transliteration of the word pasiminan or pessamin, an Algonquian word from the eastern United States. Another result of the first era of globalization, in this case the colonization of North America. Because there is also a species of kaki that is native to Eastern North America, the American Persimmon.
I prefer the formal Latin name Diospyros virginiana, which suggests to me that it was in the British colony of Virginia that the Brits first came across the tree.
By the way, there is actually a species of Diospyros which is native to the Mediterranean; actually, its range is somewhat broader, stretching from Southeast Europe to Southwest Asia. In English, it’s called the date-plum tree. Apparently, the fruit’s taste reminds one of both plums and dates.
Maybe I’m pushing this globalization thing too far, but I see another strand of globalization in that name. It is a literal translation of the Persian name for the tree and its fruit: khormaloo. In the earlier period of globalization, American colonists were content to simply anglicize the Native American name. But in a later, more learned period of globalization, when some more academic Brits actually learned the foreign languages which the expanding British Empire was coming into contact with, rather than call the tree, say, cormalew, they preferred to translate the original name.
Actually, the Latin name of this species of kaki, Diospyros lotos, is even more interesting. It refers to a belief in Greece that this fruit could have been the lotus fruit mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey. According to that story, the lotus fruit was so delicious that those of Odysseus’s men who ate it forgot about returning home and wanted to stay and eat lotus with the native lotus-eaters. I throw in here a screenshot from an electronic game based on Odysseus’s story; the fruit looks vaguely kaki-like (amazing what they will make electronic games about …)
Personally, I can’t think that kaki is the lotus-fruit. All that squishiness and mushiness would definitely not make me stick around.
Kaki over the wall: my picture
Cachi in liguria: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ciric/3032113542/sizes/z/in/photostream/ in [http://www.flickr.com/photos/ciric/3031273027/]
American persimmon tree: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-hroimehTRQk/TlPhN7euB8I/AAAAAAAAAds/lBlwEER714k/s1600/persimmon4.jpg [in http://tcpermaculture.blogspot.com/2011/08/permaculture-plants-persimmons.html%5D
American persimmon fruit: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-b3lVcZ8FOnw/TlPgCINg7VI/AAAAAAAAAdk/LQCyiQYUw2c/s1600/Persimmon3.png [in http://tcpermaculture.blogspot.com/2011/08/permaculture-plants-persimmons.html%5D
Odysseus and the lotus eaters: https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/-2uTp30FUU4E/UaHOcmkRBwI/AAAAAAAACsY/UU21szj7LBk/s1280/013_Lotus_Eaters.jpg [in http://www.gamrgrl.com/2013/05/walkthrough-odyssey-hd.html%5D