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Gingko Is A Prehistoric Food

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Fruits, Desserts, and Other Sweet Foods

Fall Volume: 2015 Issue: 22(3) pages: 12 to 13

These are Asian fruits, brown and plum-sized. They have a light tan hard shell needing a nutcracker to open them. Commonly called gingko nuts, they are botanically known as Gingko biloba. They grow on trees that have fan-shaped leaves, and some know them as the ‘maidenhair fern’ tree. They are actually living fossils whose origins are from the Jurassic Period, when they were widespread, world-wide. Now, they have no living relatives but are similar to other trees more than two hundred seventy million years ago.

Native to China, these trees are the sole survivors of ancient trees that grew more than one hundred feet tall. Their leaves turn bright yellow in Fall, their crowns are said to be broader than their age. When young, they are tall and slender with few branches. When older, their leaves are quite resistant to damage from wind and snow. Not well known in the west until about the 18th century, Carl Linnaeus did write about them and said they were ornamentals in some urban locations. Long before that, they were only found around Asian temples.

Nowadays, in and around New York City and Boston, many Asian people look for these trees. When they locate them, they look for their nuts, but when they find them, many have already been harvested by other local Chinese and Japanese who got there before they did.

Once found in a petrified gingko forest near Ellenberg in the state of Washington, they have been reintroduced to China, Europe, and Asia. People also seek them out at nurseries, but do so as non-fruiting males. There is considerable distaste for the females because of their dreadful aroma when fruiting.

Called bai guo or 'white nuts' in Chinese, the trees can be spotted in the Fall in many city parks, arborvitae, and along quite a few tree-lined American suburban streets. They can also be spotted around Asian temples, especially when mature as then their fruits fall to the ground, soften, and rot.

Chinese traditional medical practitioners, commonly known as TCM doctors, use them to treat urinary and bladder infections, and other conditions. These nuts can also be found at Chinese weddings where they are dyed red to symbolize happiness. In kitchens, they are used to stuff poultry and added to vegetables in dishes such as Eight Jewel Duck. They are also used on top of rice dishes, and in Eight Treasure Pudding; and they can be cooked with dates in Taro Pudding and in other long-cooked dishes.

Some are allergic to these as fruits or as nuts; and they can develop a contact dermatitis when they touch them. Quite a few also have problems when consuming them. Children need to limit their intake to five or six because this allergy can develop as they get older. This problem also occurs even if they had no issue the first or second time they consumed them. Adults, even if not susceptible before, should not consume more than fifteen at any one time, for safety’s sake. This allergy can develop after they have safely eaten them several times before.

Gingko nuts are also called 'silver fruit' or 'apricot fruit.' They tend to ripen just before Thanksgiving. The Japanese like them deep fried, the Chinese prefer them long-cooked. Many Chinese say they like them because they increase sexuality; and that may be why so many males like and eat them. Both males and females prepare them roasting, boiling, or steaming; and they cook them alone or with other foods.

Western nutrition specialists say they are rich in protein, calcium, phosphorus, and iron, and that they taste good no matter how they are prepared; but they, too, warn of allergic reactions. Some say if too many are eaten at any one time, they get dizzy, have a bad headache, some diarrhea, or an upset stomach. Others say they cause or increase bleeding, and that no one should take any before going to see a dentist or a doctor. This fruit can affect blood glucose levels and insulin production, impact blood pressure, and cause hypotension. Note the ‘o’ in that word, particularly if planning to eat them fresh. There is less of a problem if eaten roasted, but prepared that way can be a problem, none the less. The gingko nut does contain some butanoic acid which is why when rotting they can smell like rancid butter. Some say the aroma is closer to that of vomit; but no matter what anyone thinks they smell like, many should avoid touching them when fresh. There are some who react negatively even touching the wood on their trees; and some say not to touch the leaves, either. Others say the wood or the leaves from male trees cause these problems, others report it is only from the female trees. There are still others who say male and female trees reduce local pollution and actually clean the air around them. Not everyone agrees with everything someone else says.

These trees are the national tree of China, and the official tree of the city of Tokyo. In both countries, folks like to eat them in their congee and in a vegetarian dish known as Buddha’s Delight. That dish is usually prepared with eight or more fruits and nuts, gingko among them. They are very popular around the Chinese New Year, and for weddings when they are dyed red for happiness.

The gingko has been studied as a treatment for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, but to date, there are mixed results because there is no convincing evidence, at least not yet.

Some do appreciated their pits because they are pointed at both ends. They can use them as tooth picks but they need to know that if using them over a long period of time, they can develop oral dermatitis if one is susceptible to their allergens. We offer a recommendation, do not use too many or for too long a time, as one never knows.

To prepare them as food, they are best simmered or boiled to loosen their inner skins; and we suggest using rubber gloves if susceptible to their allergens, as one can break out just from handling them. Medical recommendations include not eating more than ten at any one sitting for even safety’s sake even if you have never had any to date. Always be careful.

Westerner health professionals we spoke to said they are rich in protein, calcium, phosphorus, and iron, and that they taste good no matter how they are made.

Except for the recipe below, we have read very few ways to prepare them. Cookbook, magazine, and other authors are concerned. Perhaps this is to protect those who publish them as they cause allergies to some people. That is less true when they are cooked for long periods of time. Here is the only recipe we have found recently.
Braised Mixed Vegetables with Gingko Nuts
2 Tablespoons sesame oil
20 small black mushrooms, soaked, stems removed and discarded, each cut in half
1 can gingko nuts, drained
1 can white asparagus, spears drained and cut across in half
5 small gai lan, quartered the long way
2 canned Roma tomatoes, each one quartered
1 Tablespoon chicken fat, rendered
1 Tablespoon thin soy sauce
1 Tablespoon mushroom soy
1 Tablespoon Chinese black vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups vegetable stock
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
1. Heat wok or fry pan, then add the oil, and stir-fry the mushrooms for four minutes.
2. Add the gingko nuts, asparagus pieces, gai lan, and the tomatoes, and stir fry for two minutes then add the chicken fat, soy sauces, vinegar, salt and the stock, and simmer for three minutes.
3. Raise temperature to high, mix cornstarch with two tablespoons cold water, and stirt-fry until thickened, then serve.

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