Last Chance Foods: What's That Smell?

In some parts of the city, buried under all the snow, there hides a smelly treasure: ginkgo nuts. While the snow currently keeps many  from collecting the fruit from city sidewalks and parks, the trees will continue producing through the winter. Ginkgo nuts, primarily used in Asian dishes, can be found in Chinatown through February and forager “Wildman” Steve Brill says that he’s sometimes even found the nuts in Central Park in early March.

Ava Chin, who writes the Urban Forager column for the New York Times’ City Room blog, notes that ginkgo trees hail from the lower Jurassic period. Originating in China, the trees are hearty and disease resistant, in part because of the foul smell emitted by the fruit of the female ginkgoes.

“It is literally dinosaur repellent,” Brill says about the putrid odor. “The fruit contains butyric acid. It gets its name from butter, because it was first isolated from rancid butter. It is also present in decomposing flesh.”

New Yorkers who walk by the fruiting trees may wonder if they are urban horticulturists’ sick joke, but Ava Chin explains that city park managers actually mean to plant the male ginkgo trees, which only produce the beautiful fan-shaped leaves that turn golden in the fall. “They’re notorious cross-dressers,” she says. “It can take about 20 years before a female ginkgo can reveal her colors.”

Despite the downside, ginkgo nuts have a long tradition in Chinese cuisine and are used in sweet soups, rice soups and vegetarian stir-frys. Chin recommends sautéing them in oil with salt and pepper. She describes the consistency as being similar to roast garlic and the taste as a cross between potatoes and edamame, with an additional bitter note at the end.

There are also purported health benefits to ginkgoes, and the leaves are used in Eastern medicine for tinctures and teas. The belief is that the plant aides circulation and memory. Chin points out, however, that there’s nothing in Western medicine to back up that claim.

Regardless of whatever health benefits there may or may not be, ginkgo nuts are an unusual and delicious treat — for those who are willing to brave the smell.

Below is Chin’s recipe for sautéed ginkgo nuts.

“Urban Forager” Sautéed Ginkgo Nuts

  • 1 cup ginkgo nuts, shelled
  • ½ teaspoon olive oil for tossing, another ½ teaspoon for sautéing (can substitute peanut or sesame oil)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Paper towels

1. Crack open ginkgos with a nutcracker. Kernels should be pale yellowish and partly covered in a papery-thin brownish membrane -- to be discarded in the cooking process.

2. Toss in a bowl with first half teaspoon of oil, plus, salt and pepper.

3. Heat up remaining oil in pan on medium-low flame.

4. Add ginkgos and cover with a splatter screen for protection from sizzling oil.

5. Shake often, until kernels turn a shiny, verdant green.

6. Transfer to a platter with paper towels. Wrap sautéed ginkgos in towels, making sure to hold them carefully in an envelope-type-fashion so that none escape to burn tender fingers. Roll the entire bunch gently, so that the thin outer membrane separates from the green kernels.

7. Serve warmed ginkgos in a bowl or on a skewer, Japanese-style, picking out any remaining outer layers.

Warning, always remember to taste-test a small, cooked sample first, to make certain that you’re not allergic. Avoid ginkgos if you’re pregnant, on anti-depressants or taking blood-thinners.