Perhaps you've seen these trees with the beautiful fan-shaped leaves in your neighborhood or in a local park. The female members of these trees produce an edible nut; unfortunately, the fruit enclosing the nut smells really bad. Their fragrance deters most people from trying them, much like the durian fruit.
Once the fruit is removed, inside lurks a nut that looks like a closed pistachio. Beneath the shell is a glossy kernel that ranges from golden amber to bright jade in color. Ginkgo nuts have long been used in Asian cuisines. The Chinese believe that ginkgo nuts have medicinal and aphrodisiac properties, and use them in congees, and certain dishes served at special occasions. Ginkgo nuts are also served during the Chinese New Year. The Japanese call them ginnan and use them in dishes such as chawanmushi (steamed egg custard) and dobin mushi (soup steamed in a teapot.) Roasted and salted ginkgo nuts on a skewer is a popular izakaya snack.
Sold in Asian markets in the produce section, ginkgo nuts must be kept refrigerated. They can keep for a week or so; when they start to smell unpleasant, it's time to toss them. To prepare, select unblemished, unbroken nuts. There are two different methods. One is the boiling method. In a small saucepan, add enough water so that there is an inch of water above the nuts, and add about a tablespoon of salt and bring to a boil. Boil about ten minutes and drain. Rinse under cold water to stop the cooking process. Place a nut on a cutting board and then with the flat side of a chef's knife, thwack them like you would thwack a clove of garlic. Remove the shell and peel off the paper-like outer skin.
The second method is to roast them. To a frying pan, add a tablespoon of vegetable oil, and then the nuts and a teaspoon of salt. Cook over medium-high heat until the shells split. Remove from heat and let cool enough to handle. Remove the shells and the paper-like outer skin.
The nuts themselves are either bright jade green or amber yellow in color when cooked. They are slightly translucent and glossy. They have a very chewy texture, and in my experience the taste varies. Sometimes they are bitter and other times they remind me of popcorn.
A health warning: Children should not eat more than five ginkgo nuts per day, and adults should not eat more than eight per day. Going over these limits can result in ginkgo poisoning. People who are allergic to mangoes and cashews should not eat ginkgo nuts. Should you decide to harvest your own ginkgo nuts, wear gloves. The ginkgo fruits contain the same plant chemicals found in poison ivy, so the fruit pulp and juice can irritate skin and mucous membranes. Do not eat the ginkgo fruits. Do not eat raw ginkgo nuts.
(Image: Kathryn Hill)