Posted by: ithacaisdoomed | November 5, 2009

Go CooCoo for Ginkgo Nuts!

Ginkgo closeup

The female Ginkgo in all her fruiting glory.

If you’re looking for a new Autumn ritual, I have a great one for you:  Urban foraging for Ginkgo nuts.  These tall slender trees, relics from the Age of the Dinosaurs, are planted all around Ithaca and many other cities.  Ginkgos have withstood everything man and natures have been able to throw at them–they’re impervious to pollution, tolerate poor soil, and don’t seem to mind growing in a sea of concrete.  Ginkgos are gymnosperms, more related to conifers than broad-leaved trees, and the popular theory holds that the Ginkgo’s broad leaves are a result of needles that fused together over time.

Being a primitive species, Ginkgos come in separate male and female trees.  This is a boon to foragers, but the bane of anyone who owns property near a female tree, for in October (in Ithaca anyway), the fetid smelling fruits of the female tree blanket the ground beneath them.  So finding a good foraging spot is simply a matter of following your nose–to the source of the vomit like odor.  Paleobotanists theorize that the fruits evolved their ration of butyric acid (the same acid in vomit) as a defense against dinosaurs, who would have loved to chow down on the tasty green kernel inside.  This defense is no match for the forager with a determined nose and strong stomach, as many local Tibetans and Khmer will attest.

I decided to rewild my morning commute last Monday, foraging for these fetid fruits, having already staked out a perfect tree at the corner of Buffalo and Schuyler Place.  I’ve also noticed three females in the parking lot of the Tompkins Trust Company on Seneca and a great big Mama in front of the Women’s Community Building.  (How appropriate!)  The thought of these majestic ladies unleashing their vomitory fruits on unsuspecting passers-by really makes me happy, in a passive aggressive way:)

If you try foraging for Ginkgo nuts, wear latex or other surgical gloves.  The outer fruit contains an irritant that can cause a severe skin rash, but you’ll also need to maintain your fine dexterity so that you can squeeze the inner nut kernel out of the surrounding fruit.  It was in this manner that I found myself crouching in the pre-dawn dark in a median strip, pinching the nut kernels into a bucket and leaving the nasty fruits on the ground.  One thing I can say for sure is that no one is going to mess with someone squatting in the dark wearing surgical gloves.  The only danger I encountered was dog doo, an unfortunate urban foraging problem.

Once I’d gathered enough, I took my bucket of stinky nuts by my POE (Place of Employment) where I am fortunate to have access to a hose.  I rinsed the nuts three times and still didn’t get rid of the odor, though it did help.  Since I had to go to work, I left the bucket of stinky nuts on top of my car in the parking garage, certain that no one would mess with anything so foul.

Wild Man Steve Brill, author of the highly recommended Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild and Not so Wild Places, advises baking the nuts in their shells at 275F for 25 minutes.  After washing them two more times, this is exactly what I did.  I found that the baking actually got rid of the sharper notes of the vomit odor.

processing Ginkgo

Processing the "nuts"

Once they were cool, I cracked the nuts open using a light touch with a hammer.  What emerged were these cute little green kernels with a brownish cap, very prehistoric looking.  I ate a few of them right away (never eat too much of a wild food the first time you try it, in case of allergic reaction) and found them to have a soft, rich texture with a mild flavor.  They did not taste at all like vomit.  My five-year old also tried one, but declined to try another.  In all honesty, I can’t say that I would snack on them in their unadulterated form either, but they are considered a great snack food in many Asian countries.  In fact, if you want to be lazy, you can by frozen Ginkgo nuts at Win Li Asian Market.

I used the nuts in several ways:  First, I chopped up a cupful in the food processor and added them to some sugary pumpkin muffins.  This was a sneaky and successful way of getting the nuts into the child.  Next, I tried using them as in a Kim Chee Fried Rice dish to accompany tofu.  Delicious and balanced.  Finally, I used them as the “protein” in a Malaysian Cabbage Curry.  The nuts have  a decent amount of protein, making them one of the few wild plant sources of this nutrient available in the urban setting.  If I were trying to survive homeless in a city, I would definitely stock up on them.  The Ginkgo nuts also have the same properties as the popular extract, mainly anti-inflammatory and vasodilating properties.  They are said to be good for Alzheimer’s disease and asthma, so eat a little every day.  The nuts are easy to freeze for latter use.

P.S. Why do I include information about cooking in this blog?  Basically, my plan is to learn how to cook with locally available ingredients and by non-fossil fuel methods, ie. over an open fire.  I’m figuring that I can use this valuable skill in the future apocalyptic scenario to open a restaurant for bartering or ingratiate myself to the new Overlords.  In any event, it’s fun.



  1. Fun.

    Now that’s hitting the nail on the head 🙂

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