Nobody who’s smelled ginkgo fruits for the first time has ever said, “Yeah, I think I’m gonna have to eat some of that.”
If you haven’t experienced them first hand, well, they have the aroma of something that maybe was once food, but has since passed through one or two digestive organs before finding its way to the nostrils. Dog vomit, in other words.
But I had read that the seeds inside the little stink bombs are a delicacy in Asia, and we’ve all heard that ginkgo supposedly has health benefits, so when I came across this woman picking them up off the street in the Hollywood neighborhood of Portland last week, I knew I had to check this thing out for myself.
The street was splattered with ginkgo fruits, and a cold, spiteful wind sent more of the puke-packets hurtling towards us as we talked.
Emily said she was the letter carrier on that street and had just discovered this female tree earlier in the week (only female ginkgos bear fruit). So she had come back on the holiday (it was Veteran’s Day) to load up.
She had been there since 8 am, picking them up, wiping the goo off with a gloved hand, and dropping them in buckets. It was 2 pm when I met her. Six hours she’d been at it. These must be delectable, I thought.
Emily said she’d learned of ginkgos as food while growing up in Korea and confirmed that they’re popular all over Asia, and that Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese people like to gather them and eat them, too. The harvest can go on for two months as the trees gradually shed their fruit. She added, “They’re very expensive to buy at the store.”
“What do they taste like?” I asked.
She didn’t give me much to go on. “Hard to describe,” she said. “They’re… um… chewy. Not sweet. They’re addictive. You shouldn’t have more than like 7 or 9 a day, though.”
I was a little alarmed. “Why, will they give me a stomachache?”
“No. You just shouldn’t. I don’t know why. That’s just what they say.”
I asked how to prepare them, and Emily advised cleaning them off, cracking them with a nutcracker, and microwaving them for 30 or 40 seconds. I asked if she ever used them in recipes, and she replied no, they’re more of a snack food, but she’ll usually peel a bunch and store them in the freezer, and when she makes rice, she’ll sometimes throw a handful of them in.
After miraculously evading any direct shots from the ginkgo-grenades raining down, I wished her well, thanked her for the info, and scooped up a few fruits for myself, packing them gingerly in a paper towel.
Back home, I washed them (in the sink in the garage), and not having a nutcracker, I tapped each seed with a hammer. Then I tossed them in the microwave.
They made some violent popping sounds, and when I took them out after 40 seconds, they looked like this. A couple had jumped clear out of their shells, and I could see that they were a radioactive-green color inside.
Well, they are hard to describe. Chewy, like a warm jellybean. The flavor was subtle. I could still catch a whiff of the fruit funk on my fingers, so that was distracting, but otherwise the flavor was quite good! If I had to pin it down I would say it was sort of like edamame.
I did some research and found that ginkgo seeds are indeed considered to be toxic in doses larger than a handful, as Emily had said. And I found that some people’s skin is sensitive to the pulp, so gloves are a good idea not just for the ick factor, but to avoid an allergic reaction.
So would I gather up and eat a few ginkgo seeds again? You bet!
But maybe not on such a windy day.