Autumn is here, and with it comes not only brisk breezes, beautiful leaves and pumpkins, but the vile reek of the ginkgo nut. Ginkgo trees—originally from Asia—now grow in cool climates around the world. When temperatures begin to fall, the trees' fan-shaped leaves might turn a beautiful gold, but that lovely display is not without its costs. Ginkgo nuts, which also appear at this time, have been described as smelling like hot garbage, odiferous cheese, dog poop or worse.
Savvy foragers, however, know that the ginkgo's disgusting stench is deceiving. If you take the time to break through that outer husk, you'll be rewarded with a delicious morsel nestled inside. Here's Edible Manhattan, reporting back from a successful recent ginkgo nut-harvesting trip to Central Park:
The thing to know about ginkgos is that the fruit’s flesh is smelly, but the little pit within is not. And while you could take the whole fruits home to pick through, it’s easy to pluck them apart before bagging. After aging a bit on the sidewalk, each orb easily yields its heart, and I soon had a cup or two of what looked like apricot pits, stuck the bag in my pocket and went on my way. Back home I washed them in the colander, consulted Brooklynite Leda Meredith’s beautiful book Northeast Foraging and toasted my haul on a sheet tray at 300 degrees for 30 minutes. It couldn’t have been easier; I was soon cracking them open (I used my ricer to violate several shells at a time) and snacking on something enjoyably interesting, an ancient food that, to me, was entirely new.
As Edible notes, today's urban foragers are far from the first to have caught on to the ginkgo's secret. People have been feasting on ginkgo nuts for centuries. The first written records of them date back to an 11th century Chinese text. By the 15th century, cooks in Japan—who still commonly serve ginkgo nuts in dishes and on their own, skewered and grilled—were using them in desserts and as part of tea ceremonies.
Today, most of those gathering ginkgo nuts in New York City and other places in the U.S. are limited to "small crowds of Chinese matriarchs," Edible writes, although with the uptick of interest in urban foraging and local eating, the competition for those deceptively smelly morsels is probably going to get a lot stiffer.