In the brief time I’d been foraging, one of the foods I hadn’t yet tried was ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) nuts. These are excellent for urban foraging, since they are often planted as landscaping trees. I found a lovely collection of mature trees last year, but they were all male. Ginkgo, like persimmons, are dioecious – meaning there are separate male and female trees. Generally male trees are preferred over females because of the off putting smell of the fruit. Luckily for foragers though, female trees are sometimes introduced by mistake. There’s no real way to tell them apart until they are old enough to bear fruit, about 20 years old!
This year, I continued scoping out locations of ginkgo trees, on the hunt for signs of fruit. Luckily I finally found some!
It’s easier to find them later in the year because the falling leaves reveal fruit still clinging to the branches. Like with so many foraging trees I’ve covered, we really want the fruit that has fallen to the ground – or falls easily if you can shake the branches.
The hardest part to harvesting ginkgo nuts is ignoring the stares (Are you crazy?) as you work your way through parking lot islands or city sidewalks. OK, just kidding. The hardest part is the smell. A lot of foraging guides recommend wearing gloves when collecting the fruit so the stinky-cheese smell doesn’t impregnate your skin. And to keep the harvest well sealed inside your car. And to drive with the windows rolled down partway. I personally didn’t think it was THAT bad.
I picked fruits that were still yellowish and somewhat fleshy. (As opposed to brownish and completely desiccated). I didn’t harvest much since I just wanted to sample them (as opposed to acorns where I was actually hoping to make them a mainstay of my diet).
It is especially important to wear gloves while cleaning the smelly fruit from the nuts. Some people may experience a contact dermatitis allergic reaction to chemicals in the pulp. I started with a knife to liberate the nut from the fruit, but it was easier just to use my vinyl-glove-encased-fingers to scrape away the flesh. This was all done outside so it wouldn’t stink up the house. Then I washed away as much of the remaining flesh as I could.
The foraging book I was reading said to roast the nuts at 200 F for 30 to 60 minutes. So I did. I kept checking them periodically to see if they, you know, smelled interesting or appeared edible. I browsed the internet (does anyone “surf” the net anymore?) looking for additional information on ginkgo nuts, and found a number of sites that described how amazingly addictive and delicious they were. I couldn’t wait!
They kinda weren’t.
Even after 60 minutes, the insides were, well, soft. And squishy. And weird textured. And nothing at all enjoyable to eat. The foraging book said they were more like a savory vegetable than a nut, and described different Asian ways of cooking and eating ginkgo. My opinion? Totally meh. Only one other person in the house tried it, and she spit it out after just one bite.
This made no sense to me. Maybe I just found a not-very-tasty-fruited tree? I shoved the nuts into a container in the back of the fridge and sulked while I continued to research.
Finally I found a promising idea – pan roasting the nuts instead of oven roasting them. One article described the technique generically, and another site had it written up like a recipe. I decided to try to salvage my ginkgo nut experience.
I used olive oil over medium heat and set to sauteeing the nuts. I added Cajun seasoning too, which was a mistake. The spices just burned while I continued trying to roast the nuts.
Periodically they would “pop,” sort of like how the websites said, but they never did split open. Perhaps because so much moisture had been roasted out of them the during the previous roasting attempt. So I had no way to know when they were “done.” And no, I didn’t keep track of how long I kept them over the heat before deciding it had been long enough. I never pay attention to cooking times like I ought to.
Pan roasting was totally the way to go. The nutmeat inside the shells became pleasantly crunchy and flavorful. Slightly bitter, though not in a bad way. At first I tried breaking the shells open with my teeth (since they didn’t split like they were “supposed” to) but most of the time I bit too hard, obliterating both the nut and the shell so I couldn’t tell which part to eat. I finally got the hang of crushing the shell in the middle with my fingernails and then pulling the two halves apart to reveal the nutmeat.
This experience reaffirms my belief you should consult as many authors as possible when learning about foraged foods. No single resource – not even this blog! – will have all the answers.
If you enjoy eating pistachios, particularly the part where you have to shell them before eating them, you would appreciate the experience of eating ginkgo nuts. I did not devour them all in one sitting, but that’s because – like all new foods – it is important to try a small portion and check for intolerances or allergies before going to crazy. Some people can get headaches or experience trouble breathing from eating ginkgo nuts. (The pulp should not be eaten at all …. if you could brave the smell to even try a small sample.)
I may have to try it again, with only the pan roasting, to see if they split open. They would have been even better with that sprinkle of salt at the end that actually got on the nutmeat itself.
TJ’s Take: Ginkgo nuts fall into my “if it’s there, might as well take advantage of it” category. Yes, I just made this up. The amount of work involved in harvesting and preparing them is moderate, and the results are tasty if you pan roast them. I’m not sure how you would preserve an abundance of the ginkgo nuts to enjoy at other times of the year (freezing I guess?), and I don’t see it being used as a staple in a typical American diet. But they are certainly worth experimenting with if you have female ginkgo trees in your area!
What is your favorite plant for urban foraging?