My friend Min Suh Son opened my eyes about ginkgos. She took a bag of ginkgo nuts we had in the freezer (from her, from last Thanksgiving since I had no idea what to do with them) and transformed the nondescript whitish nuggets into tasty, translucent green delights. Maybe it was the French sea salt. Anyway, here’s Min Suh’s guest post on how to prepare gingkos and what they mean in Korean culture. (Pay attention to her directions, foragers, because the outer part of the ginkgo is really noxious.) – Marta Hanson, the Baltimore Urban Forager
When my friend walks into a casino he says it’s like picking money up off the floor. Gambling comes easily for him, so much so that he takes only what he needs, according to a system he likes to call, “the way of gambling.”
That’s exactly what Baltimore is like for me in the fall. October hits and the ginkgo trees are laden with ripening fruit that weigh down the branches of the trees. This is the time I practice, “the way of the ginkgo,” taking only as much as I need in the face of so much abundance.
In Korea, where I was born, not a single one of those nuts would hit the ground without being picked up within minutes of falling, but here, vast expanses of ginkgos blanket the ground and go to waste.
I do my part, harvesting them during walks with my dog, but one person can only do so much and every autumn the fruit is trodden on and smashed, giving off a distinctly fecal odor so potent that it makes people stop and check the bottom of their shoes.
The ginkgo nut holds a special place in East Asian culture. It is one of the rare trees that can be either male or female, and look identical except that only the females bear fruit. Perhaps one out of every five trees are female. For this reason, the ginkgo has become a symbol of romance.
In Korea, movies and stories abound of lovers who have been turned into ginkgo trees to spend the rest of eternity frozen in everlasting longing. Aside from that, the ginkgo is also delicious. When the nuts are cooked they turn from the color of toothpaste into a delicate translucent jade so pretty that you want to run a needle through them and string them into a necklace. The fruit is chewy, with a nutty, slightly medicinal taste.
Used only in special dishes or eaten a small handful at a time, these nuts are so prized that it is a testament to America’s wealth and bounty that most of them go to waste every season.
Ginkgo trees were first imported from China or Japan to Philadelphia and Baltimore in the 1800s, at the height of the “Far Eastern” trade. Because of their fan-like leaves and the brilliant yellow color they turn in the fall, they were planted decoratively throughout these cities, often lining the urban streets where they thrived.
You can see many of these trees in downtown Baltimore still, the prevalence of which harkens back to a time when Baltimore was a vibrant port city, the first to bring in exotic goods from remote lands. But I suspect that the early urban planners were ignorant of the ginkgo’s fruit, which produce a smell and slime that that can offend even the most gracious tree-lined street. You might say their very popularity is a hazard.
So in fact, urban foragers would be doing the city’s pedestrians a great favor by picking up the fruit and discreetly disposing of them. Should you find yourself walking along a sidewalk or in a park and you see fallen ginkgo nuts, consider doing a good deed and collect a bag of them, keeping in mind the “way of the gingko,” and leave enough behind for someone else.
Toasted Ginkgos (An Easy Recipe)
Processing the ginkgo:
The ginkgo nuts are bound in a fleshy outer coat that must be removed, much like a coconut, except that this outer layer is orange and smells like… frankly, dog poop. This must be removed first and foremost because it stinks. Use gloves because it can be toxic to touch and do not ever consume it. Some people are sensitive to this outer layer so it must be removed carefully. Not having done any research in advance, one Urbanite contributor wrote about his immediate allergic reaction after consuming ginkgo flesh. Always do your research on whatever you forage to avoid a comparable and needless risk to your health.
The best way is to wear rubber gloves (or a plastic bag like I do) and then rub the nut in your hand until all of the fleshy stuff comes off. You will be left with a small white nut that resembles a pistachio. Wash the nuts thoroughly so that they are completely clean and then dry them, preferably in the sun, for at least a couple of days. They freeze nicely and can be stored in the freezer in plastic bags.
Toasting the ginkgos:
In a dry frying pan over low heat, toast the nuts slowly until the shell begins to turn slightly brown. Once they’ve toasted for about 5 minutes, remove the nuts from the heat and break the shells open. A little tap with the bottom of a coffee cup will do. Remove the soft nut from the shell, peeling off an inner skin as well, and return the now jade-green nuts into the fry pan, toasting them again over a low heat. This time with a splash of oil to coat, and sprinkled with salt to taste. You’ll know they are fully cooked when they appear translucent in color.
Postscript from Marta Hanson
One of Min Suh’s friends, Seung Hee Lee, also educated me on the contra-indications and health benefits of the ginkgo. She is a nutritionist currently working on her PhD at the Bloomberg School of Public Health in the Human Nutrition Department.
Her grandmother told her that she should not eat more than five ginkgos a day because she would become constipated. In fact, according to the Korean medical classic completed in 1610 (Precious Mirror on Eastern Medicine Tongui bogam), ginkgo has a tendency to restrict anything escaping from the body. This is why it should be eaten in moderation; the general rule of thumb is no more than five a day.
Some other potential complications, according to more modern medical experts: avoid ginkgo seeds if you’re pregnant, on anti-depressants or taking blood thinners and don’t give them to children. Ginkgo seeds are definitely an eat-at-your-own-risk item, foragers.
However, Seung Hee also noted that Koreans consider them good for the respiratory system and use them to prevent coughs. Smokers who suffer from excess mucus will be told in Korea to consume ginkgo regularly. Of course, ginkgo supplements are sold in grocery stores and there’s a huge body of research and debate about ginkgo’s effectiveness as a memory supplement. I think, despite the intense labor involved, the original nut is far more attractive and interesting than any of these ginkgo supplements.
Check out this video of The New York Times’ urban forager, Ava Chin, showing how to gather and prepare ginkgos.
So the next time your friends come over, roast them up a few these jade jewels with oil and salt, skewer them with a toothpick, and serve them with beer! Or add them to your steamed rice (preferably red rice, but sticky rice will do) with some chestnuts, toasted pine nuts, and a few jujube (Chinese dates). This is a nutty and sweet variation on plain rice.
These are just a few of the many possible ways to practice the Korean “way of the ginkgo.”