Crunchy and very sweet, the persimmon can be eaten peeled or with the skin, according to Chicago produce merchandiser Steve Chmelovsky.

The fruit is also a staple among Asian customers, and demand is growing enough that Chmelovsky said he expects to soon be importing persimmons from Spain, along with the product he already buys from California, Israel and South Africa.

Ethnic markets looking sweet for Chicago merchantsPersimmons are among items increasingly sought by local grocers as Asian, Hispanic and Indian populations grow, Chmelovsky said. His company, EveryDay Fresh Produce Inc., is one of the top wholesale distributors of fruits and vegetables for ethnic markets in the Chicago region.

“We’re finding new customers,” Chmelovsky said. “As the ethnic population grows, our sales are going to grow.”

Ethnic food sales in the U.S. reached a record $2.4 billion in 2010, up 9% from 2009, according to market researcher Mintel International Group. Sales were expected to grow another 10% by 2015, adjusted for inflation, according to a Mintel forecast earlier this year.

More than 1 million foreign-born people become legal permanent residents in the U.S. each year, with Mexico accounting for the largest number, according to a Mintel statement, citing Department of Homeland Security data.

The expanding ethnic population is piquing “mainstream” Americans’ interest in new cuisines, according to a Mintel release.

“Americans are being exposed to international foods when they dine at restaurants, and many are re-creating ethnic dishes at home,” according to the release.

At EveryDay, which ships okra, Opo squash and nearly 100 other items, sales this year are up 5% to 8% from 2010 levels, Chmelovsky estimated. He said his company is on a “consistent program” supplying to grocery chains including Jewel-Osco, a unit of Supervalu Inc.

“We expect more and more action from the chain stores” next year, he said.