(Lychees are also spelled litchi, leechee, lichee, or lichi)
Lychee (Litchi chinensis) is a member of the Soapberry family, which includes other fruit-bearing trees like longans, pulasans and rambutans. The lychee is native to regions in southern China and historians have found records of lychee consumption more than two thousand years ago. The sweet fruit was considered a symbol of romance and love and was highly prized by several Chinese emperors. From China it spread to other Asian countries and islands and then traders sold it to India, Europe, and Australia. In the late 1800s the lychee was introduced to Hawaii, Florida, and California. Today, there are between fifty and sixty different varieties of lychees. They are the most popular fruit in China and other Asian countries where they are typically eaten for dessert and used in a variety of snacks.
Lychee trees are evergreen and reach twenty to forty feet tall. They are quite attractive and are also grown as ornamental trees. Lychees are grown commercially in orchards, but many people grow lychees in their yards. The trees prefer cool, dry winters and humid summers for optimum fruit production. Frosts are hard on the trees, although older trees are hardier to colder temperatures. Lychee trees in China grow especially well near rivers and along the coastline.
One lychee tree produces hundreds to thousands of fruits per season. The trees produce light green-yellow flowers in the spring. Bees produce lychee honey, with a fragrant flavor similar to the fruit, from these flowers. Pollinated flowers develop into lychee fruits in a few months. The fruits are round and about the size of a golf ball. They have a light to bright red outer skin with a bumpy texture like a raspberry. Peeling the skin reveals a white, translucent fruit that resembles a peeled grape. A large, brown seed is in the center of the fruit. This seed is toxic and should not be eaten. People have often mislabeled the lychee as a "lychee nut" because of this seed. Occasionally, poor pollination will create underdeveloped seeds that are called "chicken tongues". These lychees are highly prized because they contain less seed and therefore more fruit. The fruits are fully ripened on the tree and are harvested during summer between May and August.
Buying and using lychees
Lychees can be purchased fresh, canned, or dried. Some larger supermarkets may sell them, but your best bet is an Asian market. Fresh lychees are available during summer months. Look for fresh lychees that have a bright red, uncracked skin and feel heavy. If the skin is brown it means the lychee is over-ripe. If you purchase these brown lychees be sure to eat them immediately. Ripe lychees stay fresh at room temperature for a few days and up to a week if stored in the fridge. To prepare them, simply peel the skin with your fingers and remove the brown seed. If fresh lychees are out of season, canned lychees can be purchased year-round. However, canned lychees are said to have a duller taste than fresh ones.
The lychee fruit is firm and sticky like a grape. It has a delicate, fragrant taste similar to flowers or incense. Lychees are used in a large variety of dishes. Alone, they make a tasty snack or a simple dessert after an Asian meal. They also add an interesting flavor to mixed fruit salads. Lychees can be used to top meats like ham to add flavor and sweetness. For a cool dessert, lychee juice can be frozen to make sherbet and whole lychees can be spooned over ice cream. They bake well and can be incorporated into cakes, breads, and puddings. Lychees may also be pickled, added to a stir-fry or fermented to make lychee wine. (mkb informs me that lychee wine can be mixed with vodka to make a tasty lychee martini)
If you want to save lychees for later simply freeze or can the fruits. Lychees can also be dried naturally by the sun or in an oven. The fruit dries down to look and taste like a raisin or date. Dried lychees are often used in China to sweeten tea or as an after-dinner sweet.
Lychees are rich in Vitamin C, calcium, potassium, and phosphorus. Asian cultures believe lychees are an analgesic and can be used to treat stomach and throat problems. Recently discovered compounds in lychees may also help ward off cancer.
The Joy of Cooking, revised edition, 1997