Monday, April 5, 2010

Caqui - Japan's Culinary Gift to Brazil

Just one hundred years ago Brazil began to receive immigrants from Japan, mostly farm laborers who arrived to work in the coffee plantations of São Paulo state in south-central Brazil. Today, Brazil is home to more than 1.4 million descendants of those early immigrants, which gives Brazil the world's largest ethnically Japanese population outside Japan, slightly larger than the Japanese population of the United States.

The Japanese brought few material things with them, as they were predominantly a relatively poor, working-class population, but the gastronomy of Brazil owes a large debt to the Japanese - I would venture a guess that sushi bars are the most popular non-Brazilian restaurants in the country, perhaps only equaled by pizza establishments. There is also one fruit, very popular everywhere in Brazil, and just coming into season now, whose cultivation in Brazil is due to the early Japanese-Brazilians, the caqui (known in English as the Japanese Persimmon). Botanically, it is known as Diospyros kaki, and is not the same fruit as the American Persimmon.

Although its cultivation in Brazil is therefore very recent, the caqui is one of the oldest cultivated plants in the world, dated back at least 2000 years in China. In China and Japan it is highly valued, and is a symbol for the autumn season in which it ripens.Most of the commercial crop of caquis in Brazil comes from the states of São Paulo and Paraná, where Brazil's Japanese population is concentrated to this date.

Caqui has very high levels of tannin, particularly when unripe, and thus has a highly astringent effect when eaten too early - it causes that sensation that one's teeth have turned to wood, and the flesh inside one's cheeks has just wrinkled like the skin of a dried prune. As the fruit matures, the quantity of tannin lessens, and the flavor grows, so it's best to eat caqui when it's already begun to soften.

Brazilians mostly eat caqui fresh, alone or as part of a fruit plate. The fruit can be peeled before eating, but this is not necessary, as the peel is edible. The soft pulp of a very ripe caqui can make a marvelous mousse - click here for a recipe for passion fruit mousse (mousse de maracujá), which can be successfully adapted for caqui, substituting an equal quantity of caqui pulp for that of maracujá.

Caquis can be found in Asian markets throughout North America during the autumn. If you buy some, chose relatively firm ones, and then let them ripen in the kitchen at room temperature for a few days. Eaten fresh or used in a mousse, you can enjoy a flavor that's enjoyed from Japan to Brazil, and one for which Brazil owes a dept of gratitude to its Japanese population.

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