You can smell ginkgo fruit long before you arrive at the tree, 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.
Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) is a fascinating tree. Apparently it is a living fossil that evolved before there were flowering plants. Ginkgo’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. The leaves are the part of the tree used to produce the memory-enhancing tinctures you can buy at the health food store. These trees are disease and insect resistant and can be extremely long-lived. There are ginkgo trees in China that are close to 2,500 years old! They are also pollution-tolerant, which is one reason so many ginkgos have been planted as street trees in cities.
There is a catch, though: there are both male and female ginkgo trees, and only the males were intended to planted 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 ginkgos found their way to our streets and parks. That’s good news for urban and suburban foragers. The orange fruits, about the size of a ping pong ball, ripen and fall to the ground in the 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 ginkgo nuts are not edible. See the directions below for how to roast ginkgo nuts. I should mention that scientifically ginkgo nuts are not really nuts and ginkgo fruits are not really fruits. Somehow roasted gametophytes doesn’t sound as tasty as roasted ginkgo nuts, so I’m going to stick with the commonly used culinary name and ignore the scientific jargon. Ginkgo 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 ginkgo 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.
Autumn and early winter storms can be a boon to ginkgo collectors. The smelly pulp gets washed off of 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 ginkgo. What do ginkgo nuts taste like? Sort of like a cross between walnuts and a barely pungent cheese such as brie.
How to Roast Ginkgo Nuts
Reminder: this is not optional. Raw ginkgo 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 300-degree-Fahrenheit oven for 30 minutes.
Tamari Ginkgo Snack
Toss already roasted (see instructions above), shelled ginkgo nuts with a little tamari or soy sauce. Bake in a 325-degree oven for 5 minutes or just until the tamari coating dries on the nuts. Really good with a pint of homebrew.
Ginkgo “Cheese” Spread
Puree roasted, shelled ginkgo nuts in a food processor with just enough extra-virgin olive oil to make a smooth paste. Mix in salt to taste.
Preserving Roasted Ginkgo Nuts
The best way to preserve ginkgo nuts is to store them, roasted but unshelled, in tightly sealed containers in the freezer.
Leda Meredith is the author of Northeast Foraging: 120 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Beach Plums to Wineberries. You can watch her foraging and food preservation videos, and follow her Leda's Urban Homestead. Her latest book is Preserving Everything: Can, Culture, Pickle, Freeze, Ferment, Dehydrate, Salt, Smoke...and More.