Have you ever tasted ginkgo nuts? Ginkgo biloba tree has become famous all around the world for its health benefits, but it’s not widely known its nuts are edible. They are eaten only in certain Asian countries, I think, and I tasted them for the first time in Japan, where they are usually grilled (both on skewers and as a salty snack) or steamed in chawan mushi (egg custard). My favourite are warm grilled salted ginkgo nuts, served as a snack in Japanese bars. I always regretted to see fruitless ginkgo trees in Switzerland…. until last autumn when I saw these on – and under – a tree on my way to the office :
Ancient ginkgo trees are either male or female and only female ones yield cute-looking but extremely stinky fruits. Female trees are therefore avoided in Europe because no one is interested in the nuts’ consumption and the particularly smelly fallen decaying fruits are not welcome on the streets or in the parks. You can imagine my joy and surprise to stumble upon these fruits!
Luckily, before foraging, I checked how to handle the fruits, taking plastic gloves and several plastic bags because the fruits are really as stinky as described (unless you wonder: they actually smell of vomit). The smell is so strong, I had to keep the plastic bags on a balcony overnight before I started to remove the nuts the following day. It took ages to get rid of the smell, but the result was well worth the efforts and time! Roasted and salted, they brought back memories of our evenings in Japan, sipping sake and eating delicious food… I hope Japanese borders open for foreign tourists next year!
It’s difficult to describe both the texture and the taste of ginkgo kernels. They have a very delicate, neutral taste, a greenish hue when cooked or roasted and their texture is quite unique. They are much softer than all the nuts I know, slightly chewy & gummy… different from anything I’ve ever eaten (maybe they remind le slightly of Japanese rice mochi sweet rice cakes).
Unfortunately, maybe due tu this year’s cold spring, my ginkgo tree hasn’t shown any sight of fruit this year… No ersatz of Japanese bars this autumn…. I only hope I’ll be able to forage next year and also eat them soon in Japan!
Ginkgo leaves are so beautiful and unique, there is no danger of mixing them up with another tree and getting (it might happen with other trees or plants), though ginkgo nuts are toxic in bigger amounts (see the WARNING below).
In Europe you can start looking for ginkgo fruits in October and you shouldn’t reject the fallen ones: the fruits will be rotten but the nuts will probably be delicious.
Never pick the fruits with bare hands! Put on disposable gloves and make sure you have a disposable plastic bag for the fruits (or even two… in case one is torn). This is important first of all because of the smell and also because some people can develop strong skin reactions to the ginkgo fruit.
Well washed and dried, ginkgo nuts can be stored for at least several weeks in a closed container in the fridge.
Ginkgo fruits are delicious and apparently healthy, but only if eaten in limited amounts. Otherwise they become very toxic and dangerous.
The advised amounts vary, but I have always been served about a dozen roasted nuts while in Japan, so I limited myself to this amount per day. Check a source you trust and stick to the advised amounts. Children shouldn’t probably be given them at all, since they are more sensitive to the ginkgo toxin (apparently they can eat up to five nuts a day, though I’m not a specialist, so prefer not to give any advice here either).
Preparation: about one hour (cleaning and washing process) + 15 min roasting
ginkgo fruits, freshly harvested
Put on disposable gloves and prepare a separate trash bag (don’t throw the ginkgo waste to your bin!).
Open each fruit, keep the nuts and put the remains into a trash bag, which should be closed and immediately put outside of the house (the smell is really horrible).
Now you can proceed to the washing process. Put on a second pair of disposable gloves. Place then nuts in a bowl of hot water and remove all the flesh stuck to the shell.
Wash them with washing liquid, several times if you need to, rinsing well, until the nuts lose almost all the smell.
You can keep them for several days in the fridge or grill them immediately.
I don’t have a grill, so I have roasted them about 10 minutes at medium heat on a covered frying pan, shaking it from time to time, but I know from Japanese izakaya experience they taste much better grilled on charcoals.
Afterwards, crack the shells delicately with a small hammer (you can also try with a nut cracker), so that you can open the nuts and take out the kernels easily.
Serve them hot, sprinkled with salt.