The Ginkgo Biloba is a tree with an ancient lineage. It’s a living fossil, like a crocodile or the remarkable Wollemi Pine. 270 million years old it is, and that people, commands respect. Reputed to improve the memory, the green fruit, or nut, of the female tree is highly prized by both Chinese and Japanese cuisines. Julie told me that she has watched families in New York gather the stinking fruit from the pavement. Having smelt it walking around The Gardens during her stay, it’s not a task that excites me very much, I have to say. Lazy, I know, but there you go. Better by far is finding a net of gingko nuts, as I finally did, in the fridge of an excellent Asian grocery.
Shell-bound, the ginkgo is shaped much like an almond; one end rounded, the other tapered to a point. Paler and thinner-skinned, with a strong, pungent smell. Once freed, the fruit itself is a little rubbery. Not quite what I was expecting, but interesting, nonetheless. The recipe that follows uses just three and this is, I think, ideal for an untrained Western palate to begin with.
Served in tiny Japanese tea cups, these barely-set custards shudder in a very luscious way. Not sure about you, but I have days when little bowls of this sort of restorative thing are very, very welcome. Wholesome, but light. Smoked tofu adds depth and complexity to the girly-ness of it all, but originally, I made this with about 60g (2oz) of salmon belly cut into small cubes, just as Holly Davis did. It made an extraordinarily good custard, gentler and even more delicate. The earthier grounding of smoked tofu however, feels somehow right for autumn. Play as you like. Best of all, it’s quick and simple. It is surprising just how much liquid two eggs will, tremulously, set. I didn’t expect this to work at all. Lovely stuff.
Steamed ginkgo and mushroom custards – makes 6
Adapted from a Holly Davis recipe. I’ve looked, longingly, at this recipe for years, but never found the nuts. If they elude you, this, I promise, will not suffer their omission in the slightest. I wish I’d made them sooner.
8 dried shiitake mushrooms, destalked
A thin slice of smoked tofu
3 ginkgo nuts, shelled OR 6 almonds, blanched and slivered
2 free-range eggs (best you can afford/find)
½ cup of mirin
1 ½ tablespoons of shoyu, tamari or soy sauce
4 spring onions, white and an inch or so of greens, sliced
A little of green tops of the spring onion, finely chopped
You will also need: A bamboo (or similar) steamer A wok 6 Japanese/Chinese teacups, each of about 80ml (1/3 cup) capacity
Soak the shiitakes in freshly boiled water for 1 hour. Soak the tofu separately in cool water to cover at the same time. Drain the tofu, pat dry and cut into tiny dice.
Drain the mushrooms, reserving 1 cup (250 ml) of the liquid. Place the mushrooms in a small saucepan, cover with water and simmer until tender. Scoop out and squeeze gently when ready. Slice caps very thinly. Rub the skin from each ginkgo nut and boil in the same saucepan for 10 minutes. Drain well and slice each into 6 pieces.
Whisk eggs, mushroom liquor, mirin and shoyu together in a bowl until well combined. Divide evenly between 6 teacups and gently arrange the mushrooms, nuts, tofu (or salmon) and spring onions in each cup.
Carefully place the cups in a bamboo steamer. Pour a little water into the base of the wok, bring to a simmer and balance the steamer on top. Place the lid on and steam for 10-12 minutes. Remove and cool for 10 minutes, then serve garnished with spring onion greenery.