Last week I received an email from Kenji with something to the effect of, "There is a ginkgo tree outside of the office. It bears fruit that smells like dog excrement. The nuts inside are good to eat."
That was all the encouragement I needed to head down to Serious Eats headquarters where, if you had been walking by on a sunny Friday afternoon, you would have seen one editor on a step ladder shaking the branches of a tree with a broom, one writer crouched on the ground gathering the offensive fruit as it pummeled the sidewalk, and a little dog named Dumpling, causing mischief of sorts.
And though it pains me to disagree with Kenji, the fleshy pulp of the ginkgo nut tree did not smell like dog feces at all, but rather some kind of extremely pungent, odiferous cheese. He was content with a handful or two of the fruit, but I, with my immigrant sensibilities, was loathe to pass up free sustenance. I asked him to give the branches a few more good shakes and he obliged.
Having essentially ravished the ginkgo tree of what was left of its nuts, the thought crossed my mind as I squatted on the ground collecting our fallen plunder that we were leaving only the fruit that remained on the highest branches, to which few would have access. We were not following the Lockean proviso in his theory of value of leaving "as good and as much" for others, which vexed my philosopher sensibilities until I realized that street maintenance had swept the area just the night before expressly for the purpose of removing the fruit, because A) nobody besides us and a few old Chinese ladies wanted the ginkgo nuts B) they smelled fairly nasty.
Oh, the smell! Noxious, acidic fumes penetrated every corner of the office, even with windows open, when we retreated back to headquarters with step-ladder, broom, and puppy in tow. And for the rest of the day the tips of my fingers stank of Cheetos-reminiscent funk, a not entirely hapless state of affairs had I not needed to be around other people. What is that smell? innocent people on the train asked one another, as I furiously balled up my fists and stuck them into my pockets.
The Camembert of Nuts
It took a while to separate the nut from the flesh. The pulp encasing the nut, if you can stomach its smell, tastes a little like plum. Lovers of durian will sympathize with the idea of enjoying the taste of something that smells less than appetizing, and in fact I was about to pop a juicy piece into my mouth when I had the foresight to ask an intern at the office to research its properties, which, among other things, turns out to be mildly toxic. So. I stopped eating, but had already taken a nibble of the pulp.
Our reward for scavenging was the ginkgo nut, which, if you've only tried it in dried form in Asian soups and congees, is entirely different when fresh. Light to jade green in hue, the nut has a texture ranging from soft and squishy to tender like a roasted chestnut. Its taste can be sweet or slightly bitter with an undertone that uncannily mirrors its stench of cheese. If a creamy Marcona almond is like the Beurre d'Isigny (a very fine quality French butter) of nuts, then the ginkgo nut, perhaps, is the Camembert of nuts. The taste is complex and utterly good to eat—so much so that when I returned home that evening, I toasted in my cast iron skillet the entire bag of ginkgo nuts that Kenji and I had collected, and ate them all in one sitting, perhaps 30 nuts in all.
Handle With Care
The next morning I awoke to find that my hands were molting. Thin flakes of skin were falling like dandruff from my palms and my fingers still reeked of eau de Camembert. Yet I did not think much of my molting until I Wikipedia-ed "Ginkgo biloba" and found that it had this to say about my delectable treat:
When eaten in large quantities (over 5 seeds a day) or over a long period, especially by children, the gametophyte (meat) of the seed can cause poisoning by MPN (4-methoxypyridoxine). MPN is heat stable and not destroyed by cooking. Studies have demonstrated that convulsions caused by MPN can be prevented or terminated with pyridoxine.
Some people are sensitive to the chemicals in the sarcotesta, the outer fleshy coating. These people should handle the seeds with care when preparing the seeds for consumption, wearing disposable gloves. The symptoms are dermatitis or blisters similar to that caused by contact with poison ivy. However, seeds with the fleshy coating removed are perfectly safe to handle.
Why, oh why, do I bother doing anything these days without first consulting Wikipedia? I wrung my molty, flaky hands in distress. I rubbed my abdomen, checking for latent pain. For the entire weekend, if ever I grew fatigued or whoozy, sneezed or coughed, my thoughts turned immediately to ginkgo as the culprit. I had planned to frolic around Central Park collecting more of these delicious nuts with their alluring, plumlike flesh, but instead I stay at home peeling the skin off my hands.
By Monday morning the molting had subsided. I never did fall ill from consuming more than five nuts, which just goes to show that that even the all-mighty Wikipedia should be read with a good dose of rational deliberation. So now I'm back at it, scouring the city for ginkgo nut trees. Next time I'll clean the flesh off wearing gloves and perhaps limit my intake to 20 rather than 30 nuts in one sitting, but such will be the extent of my caution.
Finally, click here to read Kenji's thoughts on the ginkgo nut tree and its siren attraction for the prototype known as cranky old Chinese lady, which I can only hope to become one day if I don't perish prematurely from consuming mildly toxic food.
About the author: Chichi Wang took her degree in philosophy, but decided that writing about food would be much more fun than writing about Plato. She firmly believes in all things offal, the importance of reading great books, and the necessity of three-hour meals. If she were ever to get a tattoo, it would say "Fat is flavor." Visit her blog, The Offal Cook.