Monday, June 8, 2009

Roasted Gingko nuts

When I was young, my first job out of college was as a clerk typist at an import firm on Fifth Avenue in the Thirties, in Manhattan. I had an apartment in Greenwich Village, and sometimes if the weather was fine, I walked home from work, to save the subway fare - which at the time was $0.50.

I walked down Fifth Avenue, alongside Madison Square Park, where Broadway, slashing across the grid of Manhattan, crosses Fifth Avenue at 23rd Street. On the eastern side of the park rises the Metropolitan Life Tower with its golden cupola, and to the south, in a sliver of land between the avenues, the Flatiron building looms like the prow of an ocean liner steaming north.

It was autumn, and the trees in the park had pretty fan-like leaves that were brilliantly golden. But I began to notice on my evening walks that something smelled.....not right.

The trees were Gingko trees - gingko biloba - also known as the Maidenhair tree. Gingkos are from China, and have existed in this form since prehistory.

Gingkos are dioecious - meaning that there are separate male and female plants. The park was planted with both - and so the female trees bore fruit. The fruit are like small, golden-orange plums, with soft flesh surrounding a central nut. Pretty - but the flesh contains butanoic acid. Text books may say butanoic acid smells like "rancid butter" but what it really smells like is Puke! And Poop! Fallen fruit on the sidewalk makes pedestrians inspect the soles of their shoes, wondering if someone failed to curb a dog.

In American cities with large immigrant populations it's not unusual to see elderly Asian people in the parks in the autumn, picking gingko fruit off the ground, and cleaning off the stinky flesh to save the nut beneath. Gingko nuts are prized in Asian cuisine.

Gingko nuts look like bigger, rounder pistachios. Some people shell them and stirfry the fruit, but the only way I've had them is roasted in the shell. The roasting makes the shell brittle, and you can crack them open with your fingers. Inside the plump nut is encased in an inner, papery shell that you can peel off if you want. The meat itself is a nugget of waxy, golden-green flesh. It's not crunchy, but soft - the texture is something like a Gummy-bear. The taste is subtle, starchy-sweet, a little like a chestnut, with a touch of bitterness.

They don't taste stinky!

In Japanese they are called ginnan. They are good served with sea-salt and cold sake - or with a glass of Prosecco, as we ate them before dinner last night at the home of dear friends.

5 comments:

Cheffie-Mom said...

Wow! Very interesting and informative. Thanks for the links!

Crystal said...

Wow...again I am now smarter by reading your blog. :) And you have been living a pretty amazing life...my life is boring and dull in comparison.

Kate said...

A fountain of information....good to know. Thanks. And, I'm hungry now.

Gilly said...

There are a few Maidenhair trees over here, mostly planted, hopefully, as specimen trees. But I have never ever seen fruit!

Too cold in the UK, I think!

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