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Ginkgo Nuts

by Eva Koveos

Nuts and Chestnuts

Spring Volume: 1996 Issue: 3(1) page(s): 8


My sister used to tell me of some trees lining the streets outside her office. After parking her car, she would walk down that block and smell a very foul odor, "an indescribable smell," as she said in complaint. On occasion she would see people, most of them Chinese, picking fallen fruit off the ground and peeling away the fleshy outer layer; that made the smell even worse.

She thought the aroma came from the fruit of the tree and she was right. What she smelled was the fruit of a female ginkgo tree, also known as Ginkgo biloba or the maidenhair tree. Others have compared this odor to that of rancid butter, which is putting it mildly, but the odor is an indication of ripeness in these fruit. Male ginkgo trees do not bear fruit, thus they possess no disagreeable odors, and are often planted for their ornamental value in metropolitan areas. However, male and female trees must be planted in close proximity if fruiting is to occur.

It is thought these trees originated in Northern China and are so old they are referred to as 'living fossils;' it has been said they watched the dinosaurs roam the earth.

The fruit of the ginkgo tree are plum-like. The pulpy outer layer surrounds a light brown shell in which the cream colored meat is found. The nut has a high starch content and is low in fat. These nuts are widely used in Asian cookery. They add a wonderful texture to foods and much like soybeans, pick up the flavor of other ingredients. Ginkgo nuts are used in soups, stuffings, desserts, dishes containing meat and poultry, and vegetarian dishes, as well.

Fresh ginkgo nuts can be a nice treat if you can find them. Once peeled and roasted, they have a slightly sweet flavor and a chestnut like texture. The Chinese like to prepare them in this method, serving the roasted nuts as appetizers. It is also traditional for them to dye the shells red and serve them at weddings. The first time I heard mention of Ginkgo biloba, I had no idea of its culinary use. A friend of mine advised that it was a good remedy for coughs. That was quite a few years ago, and since then it seems to have grown in popularity in the United States, particularly with the elderly. Once, I read a book that discussed their value; more recently, an elderly gentleman told me that these nuts reverse memory loss.

Ginkgo trees are very widespread in China and considered sacred. They are often planted near temples and other sacred ground. Over the years, they incorporated these pai kuo or bok gwa into their cuisine. They also found medicinal uses for the leaves, pulp and nuts. In traditional Chinese medicine, the nuts have been used to relieve hangovers, coughs and asthma. They are also used as a digestive aid and in wound dressings.

Ginkgo nuts are usually sold dried, or shelled and canned in brine. If purchased in the dry form, they must be shelled at home and then blanched. When buying the canned form, they should be rinsed of their brine before use. I usually prefer to use fresh ingredients, but the nuts, also known as seeds, are seasonal and not easy to find in their fresh form year round.

Look for the fresh variety in the fall and winter months. Their popularity in the United States is not widespread because Americans are not very familiar with the culinary use of this nut, but it is gaining popularity, particularly as healer for various things.

It may be a long while before one sees the ginkgo nut in a local supermarket. For now, those who seek these little treasures can find them in most Asian markets or comb the streets for a peculiar smell coupled with a spectacular sight. I recently heard that they are found in abundance in Central Park; can anyone direct me their locations?
Ginkgo Nuts with Chicken
Ingredients:
4 Black mushrooms
1 whole chicken breast
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1 Tablespoon white wine or dry sherry
3 Tablespoons oil
1 scallion, white part only, minced
1 Tablespoon ginger root, minced
1 can ginkgo nuts, rinsed and drained
1/2 cup peas or pea pods
1/2 cup baby corn
1 Tablespoon soy sauce
Preparation:
1. Soak mushrooms in warm water for half an hour, then dice into one-inch pieces. Set aside one-quarter cup of the mushroom liquid.
2. Dice the chicken and mix with cornstarch and wine.
3. Heat two tablespoons oil and fry the scallion and ginger root for one minute.
4. Add chicken mixture and fry for one minute, then add the ginkgo nuts, peas, and corn and fry a minute more.
5. Mix mushroom liquid with soy sauce, stir-fry one more minute, then serve.

                                                                                                                                                       
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