I went to an Asian market the other day with a list in hand. I had specific things that I needed to buy and a short amount of time in which to shop, and I wasn’t looking for anything unusual or new, the way I usually do. I had grabbed my items and was just about to head to the check-out lines when something caught my eye. They were in the refrigerated case, where Asian markets generally keep the more perishable produce, such as mushrooms, water chestnuts, chili peppers, and a host of other delicate items.
Tucked between packages of freeze-dried ginkgo nuts and little cartons of quail eggs and 100-year-old duck eggs were small red mesh bags with these little white things in them. Curiosity got to me and I picked one up. They looked like pistachio nuts. I looked at the sign, which read, “Ginkgo nuts.”
Interesting. I’d had the freeze-dried ones before in a a stir fry, but I’d never seen the raw, unshelled nuts before. So, yes, I bought them.
Ginkgo trees are the oldest living trees on earth, unchanged for more than 200 million years. Evidence shows that Chinese began cultivating it more than 1,000 years ago. Last week, I unknowingly encountered a ginkgo tree. Because it’s, its leaves were turning yellow from the top down. I thought it was so pretty that I took a photo of it, but when I got near it, I was repelled by an odor of urine. I thought, “Great, some asshole ruined the beauty of this tree by peeing on it.” I posted it on Facebook and was told by one of my former NGI classmates that this was a gingko tree and the smell is natural. It’s believed that this odor was attractive to animals at some point.
What a coincidence that I would buy ginkgo nuts the same week. I asked my friend at work how to use them and she told me that I should boil them, shell them, and peel off the skin that’s on each one. While I trusted her advice, I wondered if there were any other methods. I read that another common way to prepare them is pan frying. I decided to try both. I put half in a pot of water and boiled them for about 15 minutes, and pan fried the other half in a little bit of sunflower oil.
After placing them both on the stove, I went into the other room to check on an email. There I was, scrolling through my mail, when I hear this loud POP. As I walked back into the kitchen, there was another big POP. I had a suspicion about what was happening, so I cautiously approached the stove and sure enough, those suckers were popping right out of the pan and shooting across the room. They had become oily little projectiles and little pieces of shell landed on my counter and floor like shrapnel. I shielded my face as I approached the stove because I didn’t want to become a casualty of detonating ginkgo nuts. At arm’s length, I turned off the flame and moved the pan to the back at a safe distance. The whole thing was rather ridiculous, but I pictured getting a sharp piece of shell in my eye and wasn’t thrilled by the thought. In fact, I did get a shot of hot oil right near my eye.
While both methods turned out perfectly fine ginkgo nuts, there were a few differences. The fried ones came out with a nice golden yellow color, while the boiled ones had a smooth creamy look to them. (Pictured above, on the left are the boiled nuts; on the right are the pan fried nuts.) That one is a personal choice. However, I don’t think anyone would argue that struggling to peel skin from a nut is not a fun task. The skins, for the most part, slid off the pan fried nuts, while they stuck a little to the boiled ones. I mean, it wasn’t as difficult as removing skin from, say, hazelnuts or Brazil nuts, but I did struggle a tiny bit. A few came out looking like plaster, crumbling into dust—I assumed those were rotten.
To avoid the missile launch from your frying pan, I think timing the cooking would help. I had them in there for approximately 8 to 10 minutes before they started exploding, so maybe keeping them in the pan for about 5 minutes would do the trick. And cracking them first would probably prevent the fireworks, too.
I also discovered that the pan fried nuts were less bitter than the boiled nuts. So if you’re going to eat them out of hand, I suggest pan frying them. Ultimately, they just tasted better.
All of this pertains to ginkgo nuts that have been removed from the fruit. If you have access to the fruit, handle them carefully. The fruit contains urushiol, the same element that’s found in poison ivy, and may cause a skin reaction. Also, your hands will smell like cheese, I’ve been told. You should wear gloves and remove the flesh from around the nuts. The upside is that ginkgo nuts are known to stimulate the brain, staving off memory loss and Alzheimer’s Disease. They’re also used in Chinese culture to help with breathing/lung problems, such as asthma and bronchitis. Chinese also believe them to be aphrodisiacs.
Whether you boil or fry them, whack them gently with a mallet (or meat tenderizer or blade of a knife, or whatever you’ve got handy). Or you can crack each one with a nut cracker. Don’t whack or crack them too hard as the nuts are rather delicate. Sprinkle them with a little sea salt and enjoy. Or add them to stir fries, soups and stews, or just about anything you would add nuts to.
The medical warnings about ginkgo nuts is that adults shouldn’t have more than 8 in one day and children should have a maximum of 5. And word on the street is that if you are allergic to cashews or mangoes, you should avoid them altogether.
Anyway, that’s the story of my exploding nuts. So, just let my stupid experience be your guide when trying this Asian specialty. Here’s hoping your nuts don’t explode.
Ginkgo Nuts for Snacking
1 small bag ginkgo nuts
1 teaspoon cooking oil
Rinse nuts under running water.
Lay the nuts out on paper towels to dry.
Heat the oil in a small frying pan. Add the nuts and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool until you can handle them.
Place nuts in a small pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil and cook about 10 minutes. Drain and let cool.
Lay the nuts on a dish towel. Gently whack the nuts with a mallet (or other object) so that crack. Remove the shells and skins (a paper towel may help you rub the skins off more easily).
Sprinkle with salt and enjoy (in moderation!).