The Kaki Tree

Unlearning assumptions around food and family

MY GRANDMOTHER HAD A KAKI TREE. It grew in the backyard of her house on the outskirts of Paris. Kakis (or persimmons, as some call them) grow in winter, when most trees are bare. In this grayness, the red fruit glows like an ornament. My mother often came home from visiting my grandmother with a plastic bag heavy with kakis. She left them in the cold on the windowsill so the fruit would soften, and eventually sweeten.

To eat a kaki, remove the four-petaled calyx. If the fruit is ripe, the calyx will yield. Juice might spurt out. Take a knife, slice down the middle. Dig through sludge and spoon out the jellylike seeds. 

As a child, I loved the kaki for its strange texture, its syrupy sweetness. I loved the way it tasted of plums and honey, and for the meaning it carried. I thought I ate kakis because my grandmother is Vietnamese, and because she grew them in her garden. I thought of her whenever I ate one, as if ingesting my heritage. 

In botany, sepals form the calyx, a leaflike structure that envelops the budding flower. This tough outer skin protects the bud from wind, pests, and heat. Most plants shed the calyx after flowering. Some, like the kaki, retain it. The word calyx came from the Greek kalyx, meaning “seed, pod, husk, or outer covering.” A home. Or it came from kylix, a drinking cup. Or maybe it came from kaluptein, meaning “to cover” or “to hide.”

In each instance, the calyx always holds something else.

I want to understand why I can’t find my grandmother’s kakis abroad. I research the origins of the fruit and find only confusion.

I kept an eye out for kakis once I moved abroad as an adult, first to the U.S., then the UK. Feeling homesick, I scanned shop displays spilling out onto the sidewalks of New York and London. The fruit from my grandmother’s tree was as large as an orange, with a pointed tip like an acorn, its color deep red. The ones I found abroad were round, pale, and squat. Even left out in the cold, their flesh stayed hard, the taste crisp and fresh, like unripe pear. These varieties went by different names: persimmon in the U.S., and in the UK, Sharon’s fruit.

I want to understand why I can’t find my grandmother’s kakis abroad. I research the origins of the fruit and find only confusion. The tree is native to East Asia and North America—that much can be agreed upon. The variety I ate as a child is Diospyros kaki, while the American persimmon is Diospyros virginiana. The word diospyros comes from Greek, and can be translated as “divine fruit,” “God’s pear,” “Zeus’s wheat,” or “Jove’s fire.” Persimmon comes from the Algonquian word putchamin, pasiminan, or pessamin, meaning “dry fruit.” 

One of the issues with etymology, I’m realizing, is that it makes the past seem linear and manageable, without teaching us very much at all. 

Kaki comes from the Japanese. The kaki arrived in Japan from China in the eighth century, where it was first cultivated two thousand years ago. Then the botanist aboard the first European ship to land in Australia supposedly brought the kaki from Asia to Europe in 1768. But when I look I see the trajectory of the HMS Endeavour shows it never having passed through any country native to the fruit. 

In traditional Chinese medicine, the calyx of the kaki is dried and ground with cloves, ginger, and ginseng as a treatment against never-ending hiccups. Hiccups are caused by a powerful and involuntary spasm of the diaphragm, followed by the sudden closure of the vocal cords. When chronic, hiccups can be physically exhausting, making it hard to eat, sleep, or even think. This can cause malnutrition, exhaustion, depression, and delirium. 

In my mind, kakis were native to Vietnam because of my grandmother’s tree. I assumed she grew kakis because she missed the fruit of her home country. Vietnam shares a border with China, and dried kakis are a specialty of the southern city called Dà Lat. I find an article with photos of kakis tied to strings and hung to dry, and this curtain of orange dots makes me think of my grandmother. 

I have long considered this uprootedness to be the crux of my grandmother’s being. But as I write this, I realize that in truth, it’s something I heard once in passing, during a dinner with too much wine. 

When she was still well, my grandmother traveled from Paris to Ho Chi Minh City every year for decades. But travel became complicated as she aged. I remember she wept one evening during dinner as the prospect of her return appeared unlikely. She told us she missed her country, but that when she was there, she missed her children in France. Then she stood up and went to bed. After she closed the door, my mother called my grandmother uprooted. 

I have long considered this uprootedness to be the crux of my grandmother’s being. But as I write this, I realize that in truth, it’s something I heard once in passing, during a dinner with too much wine. 

Chronic hiccups are usually the result of some underlying damage or disease. A cyst or a tumor on the thyroid could irritate the nerves connected to the diaphragm. The inflammation of the brain or the spinal cord could weaken the central nervous system. In Western medicine, violent spasms of the diaphragm are treated with numbing agents injected straight into the nerves. The procedure is complicated and can easily injure the nerve and its surrounding blood vessels and peripheral tissue. 

When I return to the article on Dà Lat, the comforting illusion of kakis as a direct tie to my grandmother’s country is damaged. The website says kakis did not arrive in Vietnam through China or Japan, but were brought by the French at the beginning of the twentieth century, when the country was still part of the colony some called Indochina. I thought my grandmother had a kaki tree because she felt homesick. And I thought that, through kakis, I nurtured my relationship to her and her country. But if the website is correct, kakis have as much to do with Vietnam as they do with French colonial history. 

I feel doubtful and unsure of what to believe. Then again this is the only source I found on the Vietnamese history of the kaki in a language I understand. Another hiccup of sorts.

My grandmother now lives in a nursing home. Her house was emptied and sold. I don’t know if kakis still grow in what was once her garden.

I don’t even know if she planted the tree. 

Edmée Lepercq is a writer and critic based in London, UK.