There are two ways to know you’ve met a gingko tree: you’ve experienced the most elegant leaves in the plant world (no wonder they are used as bookmarks in Japan) or you’ve experienced an incredibly vile odour because you stepped on the fruit. It’s a tree of opposites. And a tree with history. Gingkos are often called living fossils because they’ve been around for millions years and they are not related to any other plant species—they are their own species.
Gingkos have been cultivated in China for about a thousand years and the nuts are considered to have medicinal properties. In the west, leaf extracts are used to make the Gingko biloba that we purchase in health food stores, most often to help memory.
They are planted in cities along streets and in parks simply because they are resilient as well as gorgeous. Cities will often plant male trees because only female trees drop the smelly fruit. But where the fruit is, the pickers are, throughout November and December, hoping to get a fix of memory, history and beauty.
There are two female gingko trees in front of our house that create a yellow rain of leaves this time of year. I treasure them, and although it’s a little bit of work, it’s exciting to collect the fruit. If you are so inclined, it’s best to prepare in advance by gathering your materials:
- garbage bag
- lots of disposable gloves
- disposable plastic take-out food containers
- fry pan with lid
Pick up the fruit, always wearing your gloves. There are properties to the fruit that are similar to poison ivy, so protect yourself throughout out the process. I put the fruit into a pail lined with a garbage bag.
Let the gingko fruit soak in cold water for a few hours and the pulpy flesh will slide off easily. Discard the few on which it doesn’t. I use disposable take-out containers and put them in the recycling bin when I’m done.
Still wearing gloves, scrub the nuts in a colander by rubbing them in your hands. They look very similar to pistachio nuts.
Some people prefer to bake them in the oven on lined cookie sheets. I dry roast them in a pot with a lid (because some of them will pop as they heat up) for about 10 minutes.
Once they are toasted, they are easy to crack. Tap gently with a hammer on a cutting board covered with parchment or waxed paper. There is a thin skin under the shell that should come off easily. It’s important to remove this skin because it may cause allergies in some people. A few may be hard to clean; just discard them.
What to do with them? They are best enjoyed as a rare and special salty appetizer, especially when found in Central Park:
Read this New York Times Article about how the restaurant Masa serves them.
Prepared this way, they are delicious. They taste like a cross between edamame and chestnut, with a little something strange and undefinable thrown in.
I’ve read you’re not supposed to eat more than 10 per day because there may be a mild toxicity to the meat of the nuts. A small portion of people may have an allergic reaction. If this is your case, enjoy the beauty from afar or press some leaves—but tread carefully!