You can smell gingko fruit from a block away, and it’s not a pleasant experience. But once you get rid of the stinky orange pulp, there is a culinary jewel waiting in the “nut” inside.
Gingko (Gingko biloba) is a fascinating tree. Apparently it is a living fossil that evolved before there were flowering plants. Gingko’s fan-shaped leaves with veins running all the way to the edges of each leaf are unique among trees. In autumn they turn bright yellow before falling.
These trees are disease and insect resistant and can be extremely long-lived. There are gingko trees in China that are close to 2,500 years old! They are also pollution-tolerant, which is one reason so many gingkos have been planted as street trees in Brooklyn.
There is a catch, though: there are both male and female gingko trees, and only the males were supposed to be used as street trees (they don’t produce the smelly fruits). But when they aren’t fruiting, the male and female trees are difficult to tell apart, and numerous fruiting female gingkos found their way to our streets and parks.
That’s good news for foragers. The orange fruits, about the size of a ping pong ball, ripen and fall to the ground in late fall. Inside the smelly pulp is a thin-shelled kernel about 3/4-inch long that is easily cracked. And inside that there is a pistachio-green “nut” that is delicious once roasted.
The roasting part is not optional — raw gingko nuts are poisonous. See the directions below for how to roast gingko nuts.
I should mention that scientifically gingko nuts are not really nuts and gingko fruits are not really fruits. Somehow roasted gametophytes doesn’t sound as tasty as roasted gingko nuts, so I’m going to stick with the commonly used culinary name and ignore the scientific jargon.
Gingko is a popular food in Asian communities where people often “field dress” — clean on the spot — the nuts. You’ll know that’s what happened when you find a heap of the smelly pulp at the base of a gingko tree and all the nuts are gone. Then again, you don’t have to be in an Asian community for that to happen. It also occurs if I got there before you did.
The recent early snowstorm was a boon to gingko collectors. The pulp was washed off of many fruits that had already fallen to the ground, sparing foragers from the messiest part of the harvest.
Some people get a rash from the juices of the pulp. Just to be on the safe side, wear gloves or cover your hands with plastic bags when collecting gingko.
What do gingko nuts taste like? Sort of like a cross between walnuts and a barely pungent cheese such as brie.
How to Roast Gingko Nuts
Reminder: this is not optional. Raw gingko nuts are not edible.
Wash off any pulp clinging to the shells. Spread in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake in a preheated 300F oven for 30 minutes (thanks to Wildman Steve Brill for the roasting instructions).
Tamari Gingko Snack
Toss roasted, shelled gingko nuts with a little tamari or soy sauce. Bake in a 325F oven for 5 minutes or just until the tamari coating dries on the nuts. Really good with a pint of BK brew.
Gingko “Cheese” Spread
Puree roasted, shelled gingko nuts in a food processor with just enough extra-virgin olive oil to make a smooth paste. Mix in salt to taste.
Preserving Roasted Gingko Nuts
The best way to preserve gingko nuts is to store them, roasted but unshelled, in tightly sealed containers in the freezer.
Leda Meredith is the author of The Locavore’s Handbook: The Busy Person’s Guide to Eating Local on a Budget. She is the Gardening Program Coordinator for Adult Education at the New York Botanical Garden and an instructor specializing in edible and medicinal plants at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Info on her many upcoming classes and events can be found on her blog at www.ledameredith.com