This year, the lively and fun autumn festivals in Japan have been canceled, like so many other public events. But nothing can stop the seasons from happening in order, just as they are meant to happen. Soon it will be “koyo” (紅葉), when all the leaves turn. What comes to mind first when you hear koyo might be the brilliant red Japanese maples, but around the same time, the tall and stately “ichou,” (イチョウ) ginkgo trees also turn and shower the pavements with their gold, fan-shaped leaves.
However, before the beautiful ginkgo trees shed their leaves, you will want to watch your head and your feet, because at peak time, little fruit resembling pale pink cherries drop at an alarming rate from their branches. The sound when they hit the ground is like rain, and the smell when the fruit gets crushed or stepped on is unforgettable–a pungent, stinky cheese smell that will follow you wherever you go if you happen to step in the wrong place.
Trivia Question 2: Which castle in Japan used to be called “Ginnanjo,” or Ginkgo Castle?
Interestingly enough, the stinky fruit of the ginkgo tree is hiding a precious treasure, “ginnan,” (銀杏same as the name of the fruit) or ginkgo nut. Encased in a hard, white shell resembling a pistachio, gingko nuts can be roasted, pan-fried, or steamed in an egg-custard dish called “chawanmushi” that is often served with sushi.
Trivia Question 3: In what country did the ginkgo tree originate?
Are Ginkgo Nuts Poisonous or Healthy?
A scary question, and the answer could be both!
Yes, because ginnan contain something called methylpyridoxine, also known as ginkgotoxin, which can cause vomiting, diarrhea, difficulty breathing, loss of consciousness, and even death. In addition, touching the fruit with your bare hands can cause an allergic reaction similar to touching poison ivy.
That being said, if you cook them before eating (they cannot be consumed raw) and eat in moderation, there are some amazing nutritional benefits! These little green gems contain:
Ginnan also contain small amounts of B-complex vitamins, are known for their cough-suppressing effects, and are said to be beneficial for memory and brain health.
Although ginnan are not widely eaten in America, they are available as health supplements. In China, they are traditionally consumed as medicine. They are commonly found in traditional Japanese dishes like “chawanmushi,” (茶碗蒸し) savory egg custard served with sushi, “takikomi gohan,” (炊き込みご飯) mixed rice, and toasted, salted, and served on its own as a snack to go with alcohol “iri-ginnan” (炒り銀杏).
Daily dose for adults: 8~40 ginnan a day (quite a wide range, but I would stick to the lower end of the scale)
Daily dose for children under 14: 3~5 a day (the younger the child, the more sensitive to ginkgotoxin).
It is also recommended to eat ginnan no more than three times per week.
What Do Ginkgo Nuts Taste Like?
When pan-fried or roasted, they taste a bit toasty, like popcorn (especially if you toast them in oil!), with a slightly bitter aftertaste. Their firm, somewhat elastic texture reminds me of the less jiggly variety of gummy vitamins for kids.
How Do You Cook Ginkgo Nuts?
Because ginnan are rather expensive to order, check your local Asian market for a better price. If you happen to have a fruit-producing ginkgo tree in your neighborhood and don’t mind the hassle of dealing with the stink, you can forage for your own!
How To Prepare
Step 1: Collect the fruit in a double bag, wearing gloves to protect your skin from irritation.
Step 2: Cut off the fleshy fruit, and wash away any remaining pulp (careful not to splash the stinky water everywhere).
Step 3: Dry the nuts completely. Warning: Do not get tempted to nibble on them raw!
Step 4: Use a nutcracker, hammer, or a sturdy bowl to make a crack in the shells. It helps to place the nuts between dish towels to prevent shards from flying.
Microwave Method: Pop them in a paper bag and microwave for 60 to 90 seconds at 500W. They are ready when you hear them begin to pop.
(Don’t let too many pop, or you will have a nice layer of exploded ginnan powder to clean up!)
Frying Pan Method: Add to a hot pan (oiled or not, your choice!) and toast until the shells are browned and the inside turns yellowish. Keep a careful eye on them, and don’t stand with your face too close–ginnan tend to jump out of the pan!
Oven Method: Bake on a baking tray for 30 minutes at 300℉/148℃
Step 5: Salt, and enjoy in moderation!
You can also use them in cooking! Here a few recipes:
If you can’t get your hands on ginnan either at the Asian market or from foraging, you can still enjoy delicious autumn recipes by substituting ginnan with edamame (for color) or chestnuts (for an autumn vibe.)
What About You?
Have you ever experienced the stink of ginnan? What is your favorite way to eat ginnan? And finally, how many trivia questions did you answer correctly? (Answers below). Let us know in the comments!
1: Tokyo Metro
2: Kumamoto Castle
For your autumn cooking experience–