Last Chance Foods: What's That Smell?

Ginkgoes may stink up the city, but they make for good winter eating

Friday, December 31, 2010

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.


Ava Chin

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Amy Eddings


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Comments [6]

wildmansteve from Mamaroneck, NY

Great article and comments—I appreciate the coverage.

I toast the ginkgoes in the shells (after discarding the smelly fruits) for 30 minutes in a preheated 300 degrees F oven, stirring occasionally, then shell them. The thin shells crack with the tap of a water glass. I use them in soups, stews, stir-fries, and, along with brewer's yeast, which also tastes fermented, in any vegan recipe that calls for cheese.

And I'll be resuming my public and school class foraging tours of parks throughout the Greater NY area with 1 of Central Park on March 5, for anyone who wants to learn about all the hundreds of delicious, overlooked, renewable wild foods our ecosystems have to offer. I should be ready to post my schedule on my site,, soon.

BTW, it's easy to tell the difference between a male and female ginkgo tree. Unlike human beings, with the ginkgo, it's the female of the species that has the nuts!

Happy Foraging!

"Wildman" Steve Brill

Jan. 06 2011 11:52 AM

Thanks all for the great comments and warnings. Yes, gloves should definitely be used when collecting the nuts and proper precautions taken when cooking with them.

Jan. 06 2011 11:06 AM
Helen from UES

I grew up in South Korea and had quite a few throughout my childhood. I have very fond memories of roasting and eating these stinky nuts with my family! :) It's an acquired taste, but one that I like nonetheless.

Jan. 03 2011 05:04 PM
Sophie from Poughkeepsie, NY

Along with the inherent toxic properties a plant may have. I think it's never a good idea to "forage or harvest" by the side of the road or on the side-walk, too many toxins.

Jan. 01 2011 04:20 PM
Connie from Brooklyn

Ginkgo cannot eat like fruit as raw. Have to cook it. Ginkgo has slightly toxic, eaten too much may cause some dizziness, diarrhea and other symptoms to some people

Dec. 31 2010 06:09 PM
Joe Holdner from Brooklyn

While Ginko nuts can be good to eat, collecting them can be hazardous. The outer fruit contains the same constituant, Rushiol as found in Poison Ivy and can cause a severe rash in people who are sensitive to it, as once happened to me. My facial skin hardened and turned to the texture of leather. Wearing of rubber gloves as I've seen many Chinese do when dealing with the fruit is strongly advised. Avoid touching exposed skin with contaminated hands,etc.

Dec. 31 2010 10:00 AM

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About Last Chance Foods

Last Chance Foods covers produce that’s about to go out of season, gives you a heads up on what’s still available at the farmers market and tells you how to keep it fresh through the winter.


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