If you’ve been to your local Asian market or have visited a Chinatown recently, you may have chanced upon fruit stalls bearing bumpy, magenta-red bulbs known as lychee. Those oval, walnut-shaped fruits are worth buying pounds of – ”with the shells off, you’ll uncover a translucent-pink, pulpy flesh that releases a sweet melon-like juice with a hint of rose. How to pick the best ones? By nature, lychees should be very aromatic, even with their prickly shells on.
The earliest known record of the fruit dates back to 1059 A.D., found in illustrated Chinese literature. The lychee is native to provinces in Southern China with low elevations, like Kwangtung and Fukien, flourishing best along rivers and near the seacoast. In the late 17th Century, it has been said that lychee arrived in Burma; it traveled to India 100 years after, and then reached the West Indies in 1775. It was only in the early half of the 19th century was lychee cultivated in greenhouses in France and England.
The fruit reached Hawaii in 1873, Florida in 1883, and hit California in 1897.
The fruit reached Hawaii in 1873, Florida in 1883, and hit California in 1897. In the 1920’s, China’s annual crop amounted to 30 million pounds. In 1937, the harvest in Fukien Province alone produced well over 35 million pounds. China is the leading lychee producer, with India, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam following respectively. Among other countries you can find lychee crops: Australia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, former Indochina, Japan, the Philippines, Queensland, Madagascar, Brazil and South Africa.
While lychees are successfully grown across North America, they grow best in south Florida, Hawaii, southern California and southern Texas. States with warm climates have had greater success at lychee production than colder regions since the trees need lots of sun. Lychee trees cannot withstand temperatures below 30 degrees for over 8 hours. Freeze protection is needed, e.g. greenhouses, if grown in cold conditions. If there are shaded areas of a tree, those sections will rarely produce fruit.
As with many fruits, there isn’t only one kind of lychee. Naturally, several varieties have been discovered in many countries, probably well over 50. In North America, the Brewster and Mauritius have been the most reliable to cultivate and produce. They are the dominant commercial varieties in the U.S.
Lychee season is during the summer; May and June in the northern hemisphere and December to February in the southern hemisphere.
Lychee is best eaten fresh – ”chilled, peeled and enjoyed. Freshly picked lychees keep their color and quality between 3 to 5 days at room temperature. When left on the vine, they stay fresh longer.
The only problem with lychee is that it isn’t available all yearlong and when in season, the harvest on average lasts only about six weeks. In fact, sometimes it’s hard to find the fresh red fruit even in Asian markets when at its peak time. I have not yet seen lychee sold in American supermarkets as it seems to be a highly specialized food in the U.S. Some say it’s exotic, but it’s just a fabulous fruit not yet fully appreciated in the West. However, this is where our canned friend comes in – ”yes, the juicy bulbs are removed of their seeds before being poached in sweet syrup and canned. While the taste isn’t identical to its fresh counterpart, the canned version captures the essence of lychee’s distinctive melon-like flavor and is easily accessible at Asian markets and even some American food stores like Trader Joe’s.
Frozen lychee is available via the Web through international vendors. But chances are, you’re better off using canned lychees for recipes. If you freeze lychee – ”canned or fresh – ”the meat turns tan in color but does not compromise its flavor. Frozen lychees should be thawed in lukewarm water. Once frozen and thawed, lychees must be eaten very soon as they discolor and spoil quickly.
Preparation-wise, lychee is an all-purpose fruit – ”great for savory dishes and sweet ones too. You’ll find it:
-added to fruit cups and fruit salads
-stuffed with cottage cheese or cream cheese
-filled with chopped nuts, like pecans, pistachios, walnuts, or almonds
-sliced and congealed into gelatin
-layered with ice cream or whipped cream
-baked or grilled on top of meats, like ham or steak
-pureed and made into ice cream, sorbet or sherbet
-spiced or pickled for a snack or appetizer
-made into a sauce, preserves, jelly/jam or wine
-made into syrup for lychee cocktails or beverages
-dried for fruit-on-the-go
-used as a sweetener or accent for tea
Many families, including my own, add canned lychee – ”syrup and all – ”in a chilled dessert soup with almond pudding, lemon-lime soda, and fruit cocktail. Simple, delicious and everyone loves it!
About one cup of fresh lychee contains 125 calories and only 7 grams of fat. It’s an excellent source of vitamin C, magnesium, vitamin B3 (niacin), vitamin B2 (riboflavin); and has about as much dietary fiber as an apple with its skin on.
If eaten in excess, it is believed that lychees may cause a fever or a nosebleed though some ancient Chinese legends have said that devotees have eaten from 300 to 1,000 lychee a day.
Stuffed Lychee on Skewers
Yields about 4 skewers with 4 lychee each
- 1 can of lychees in syrup, refrigerated
- 1 pint vanilla bean ice cream or homemade lychee sorbet
- Thin wooden skewers
- Fresh mint leaves (for garnish)
- optional: rose water
- 1 pre-frozen plastic container
- Open the can of lychee and separate the syrup in a container to use later for an iced lychee tea.
- Then, sort out the sturdy, whole lychees in a clean bowl from the ones that have lost their shape or have holes in them. Drain the whole lychees as they most likely are cradling the juice they were submerged in.
- Make sure the ice cream is very hard; this will make it easier to handle and give you more time to prepare the lychee. With a small spoon, scoop out about 2 teaspoons of vanilla bean ice cream and stuff into one lychee as quickly as possible. Repeat as needed.
- Place the stuffed lychees upright with its opening at the top in the cold plastic container. You’ll probably be able to make about 4-5 of them until you have to put them in the freezer before the ice cream dribbles out. If you can’t work fast enough, keep the container in the freezer and individually place each lychee in the container immediately after filling with ice cream.
- Once all lychees have been stuffed, freeze them for at least 4 hours before skewering and serving. Freezer temperatures vary so if they are too soft when you remove them, feel free to put them back in the freezer. It is also fine to leave them overnight or for a few days in the freezer. Once removed, the lychee is still juicy, and chewy, not rock hard. If they are too hard for your preference, thaw at room temperature, careful not to let them ooze.
- Pick off whole mint leaves from the vine, wash and dry them.
- When the stuffed lychee have been frozen, skewer them, alternating between a mint leaf. Four to five lychees work best on a skewer.
- Optional: take 2 teaspoons of rose water and lightly dab each lychee with a pastry brush. DO NOT douse the lychee with rose water as a tiny bit of rose water goes a long way.
- Place skewers in the freezer if they begin to melt before you can serve them. If some of the ice cream has leaked out, just refill them with ice cream and quickly freeze again. This is a bit of a tricky recipe but with some practice you will be able to stuff and freeze lychee like a pro!
Lychee liquid tip:
What do you do with the syrup you drained the lychees out of?
Save it and use it as a sweetener for iced tea or add it into a cocktail.
Brew 3 bags of green tea following the directions on the box. Chill in the refrigerator. Add ¼ cup of the lychee “juice” and blend with tea. Throw in some fresh mint leaves and lightly grind into the tea mixture. Serve with ice and a lychee-mint skewer! If the tea isn’t sweet enough for you, add more lychee syrup.
Melody grew up loving to write, especially about food, and went on to receive a B.A. from U.C. Berkeley. Her last position at a food magazine allowed her to live out her then dream job of eating fancy foods everyday and critiquing their flavors and textures for articles. Now, she works for The New York Daily News and invents Asian-fusion recipes for Asiance. You can reach Melody at email@example.com or visit her MyAsiance page at my.asiancemagazine.com/mymelody.