Each fall 69-year-old Suey Chin, equipped with gloves and an armful of shopping bags, trudges eight long blocks from her Chinatown house to collect 50 pounds of the vilest, most rancid fruit known to Americans.
She lugs the fruit home and spreads the stinky, slimy, smelly mess in several cardboard boxes in her windowless laundry room. Weeks later, the fruit's flesh will rot, exposing the precious gingko nuts. Only then can Suey Chin began to prepare the delicacy for her Chinese dishes.
All the toil and grief she endures to process the gingko nuts is worth it, she said, because 50 pounds of them will supply her with enough to last several months. Besides, it's all free.
Gingko trees, often called living fossils, are ornamental, tall, slender and well-formed. They are the only surviving species of a group of plants that lived hundreds of millions of years ago. They were discovered growing in temple gardens in China and Japan.
Since the early 1900s, female gingkos have fouled this city-s air with their fruit. During the 1950s, tree experts brewed a potent potion that has been used to spray the female trees, which can be found in numerous residential areas and downtown's traffic squares and circles. The female trees are marked with yellow paint to avoid needlessly spraying the male trees, which do not bear fruit.
However, some female gingkos have somehow escaped the annual fruiticide treatmenng the gingko nut, which is odourless and tasteless, Ton C fruit over city sidewalks and car rooftops.
Friends of the gingkos, such as Suey Chin are rare. Ton Chin, her son, said he "raises hell every time she picks those damn things. The entire house stinks for three months."
No matter how much his mother tries to convince him into eating the gingko nut, which is odorless and tasteless, Ton Chin insists that he will never eat them. When she sneaks a handful of nuts into a Chinese meal, he said, he instantly spots them and tosses them.
Along the 3600 block of Cumberland Street NW, gingko trees of both sexes line both sides of the street. A swift breeze can send hundreds of the plumlike fruit plummeting to the ground, either to be mashed then and there or to roll down the street to be squashed by cars or feet. At the corner, a passerby can see and indeed smell the fruit which just recently began to cake on the sidewalk. Smeared footprints lead to various doorsteps.
Residents in this quiet neighborhood conjure up different notions of what the flesh of the gingko fruit smells like. They all agree that it is, quite frankly, rather disgusting.
To refresh her memory, Joan Best of 3621 Cumberland St., gently picked up one smashed gingko and took two good whiffs.
"Ooooooooh, it smells like a sour baby that just upchucked," she said with a grimace. And her husband, Robert, insisted that "it's about the smelliest, stinkiest, vilest thing I've ever smelled."
The gingkos, called bai guo or "white nut" in Chinese, are curiously indifferent to smog, smoke and fungus diseases. For many who live near or under them, the shade supplied by the gingkos far outweighs their shortcomings.
During autumn, the leaves turn canary gold and flutter often overnight to the ground without much prodding from the wind. According to Chinese folklore, the gingko nut cures tumors. To this day, Suey Chin still cooks the nuts along with various medicinal herbs to make soup.
Older generation Chinese, particularly those from the Szechuan Province, used to purchase roasted gingko nuts from sidewalk peddlers. Using hot coals, the gingko nuts would be roasted along with chestnuts in a pan of heated sand. Molasses swirled in the sand would add a special flavor to the roasted nuts. As children, the Szechuanese would use the nuts in the shells to play the Chinese version of "Jacks."
For the curious, especially those with no aversion to strong smells, here is a recipe that has gingko nuts as an ingredient. The ingredients are sold at Chinese specialty stores.
VEGETABLE SALAD (6 servings) 3 ounces gingko nuts (fresh or canned) 8 ounces straw mushrooms 6 ounces bitter melon 1 soup spoon soy bean paste 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon sugar 2 teaspoons cornstarch 7 soup spoons sesame oil Peppercorns
When using fresh gingko nuts, remove shells and soak them in hot water for 10 minutes. Then remove the thin skin covering each nut. Slice straw mushrooms in half. Open the bitter melon and scoop out the seeds; cut into 1 1/4-inch slices. Soak the melon in salt for about 5 minutes and strain the bitter juice. In a small bowl, max cornstarch with 5 soup spoons of water.
Heat 2 soup spoons of sesame oil in a wok until it begins to smoke. Saute the bitter melon for 2 minutes and remove. Heat 2 more spoons of oil and fry the gingko nuts and mushrooms together for 2 minutes and remove. Quickly saute a handful of peppercorns, more or less to taste, in remaining hot oil; throw out the fried peppercorns and keep the spiced oil in the wok.
Stirring constantly over high heat, add soy bean paste, 5 spoons of water, mushroom, melon, gingko nuts, sugar and corn starch mixture. Continue stirring until ingredients are heated through and sauce has thickened. Transfer to a bowl and serve hot.