Despite common usage, the lychee is not a nut. It is a fruit that grows well in warm, tropical climates.
It is also an addiction for those of us with a sweet tooth. For the lychee — or litchi, as it is often spelled — is truly sweet.
You wouldn’t think it to look at. In the market or on the tree, the rough, knobby exterior looks more like a hard strawberry. According to research on the subject, lychees are often referred to as alligator strawberries in some cultures — the deep South or India, depending on whom you believe — though it’s a term I’ve never heard. The skin feels like an alligator’s or a file you’d use to sand a 2-by-4.
Until I moved to Florida, I was only familiar with the canned variety of lychee, sometimes served as a dessert in Asian restaurants along with its cousins, rambutan and longan. But the evergreen trees thrive in the eternal sun and the humidity, far better than some of the humans. When a colleague brought a box of the red fruit with the milky white center into work, I had to be shown how to peel them, how to pick the best ones and how to determine which ones to avoid.
Now that they are in season and you can find them in neighborhood groceries (I found them in a box in the produce section of my nearby H-E-B; they were even on sale), I thought I’d share a couple of tips I learned:
- Pick lychees that are firm yet have a little give at the top. These are likely to be the juiciest.
- If the fruit is too firm, it may not be ripe. If it is hard and looks more shrunken than the others, it may have dried out.
- Lychees bruise relatively easily, despite the tough skin. So, look for blemishes or discoloration around a soft spot.
- To peel, pull the stem off or dig a fingernail into the skin near the top until it breaks. You can use a knife, if you’re one of those who doesn’t like to touch his or her food.
- A membrane lines the skin. Peel it back, should it stick with the meat of the fruit.
- At the center of the lychee is a large nut-like seed that you discard.
The rest is all about enjoying the highly sweet fruit and its juices. I’m getting a sugar rush typing this.
I generally eat just one or two straight from the skin. But there are numerous ways to incorporate lychees into your cooking, whether you are using fresh or canned.
One is the Watermelon Salad you’ll find in another post on this site (click here). Toss them in salads, especially fruit salads. Add to your sweet-and-sour stir-fries; their limpid texture is a nice contrast to the crunch of water chestnuts. Or you can place halves on a ham instead of pineapple.
If you are looking to add more sparkle to a brut Champagne, place half a lychee at the bottom of your flute.
The following recipe is adapted from a Web site devoted to lychees:
Tropical Fruit Salsa and Cinnamon Chips
2 kiwis, peeled and diced
1/2 pineapple, cored and diced
1 mango, pitted and diced
1 pound strawberries, stemmed and cut into bite sizes
1 cup lychees
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon brown sugar
3 tablespoons lychee jam or apricot jam
10 (10-inch) flour tortillas
Butter-flavored cooking spray
2 cups cinnamon sugar (see Note)
In a large bowl, thoroughly mix kiwis, pineapple, mango, strawberries, lychees, white sugar, brown sugar and jam. Cover and chill in the refrigerator at least 15 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Coat one side of each flour tortilla with butter-flavored cooking spray. Cut into wedges and arrange in a single layer on a large baking sheet. Sprinkle wedges with desired amount of cinnamon sugar. Spray again with cooking spray.
Bake in the preheated oven 8 to 10 minutes. Repeat with any remaining tortilla wedges. Allow to cool approximately 15 minutes. Serve with chilled fruit and spice mixture.
Note: To make cinnamon sugar, mix sugar and cinnamon in the desired proportion, which generally ranges from 3-1 to 12-1, according to Wikipedia.
Recipe adapted from lycheesonline.com.