I am not Asian by any stretch of the imagination. But rolling this oblong sphere of fruit between my thumb and forefinger dredges up strong memories of childhood, of the occasional trip to the far-away international market Lee Lee’s and grubby hands reaching desperately for seconds and thirds and fourths before the eventual disappointment of an empty bag. Every so often, my mom would make the trek to Lee Lee’s for all kinds of Asian fare. My favorite was the red bean bun, available in the frozen aisle, microwaveable and absolutely abhorred by my brothers. And every so often, my mom would buy a bag of lychees.
Lychees. Photo courtesy of Cipora Cohon.
Lychees are a ping pong ball-sized fruit, covered in a thin, spiny skin that peels like a very agreeable orange. Once inside, the fruit is essentially clear. The only color comes from a thick white membrane separating the fruit from its large pit. Everything inside is smooth and clean, in sharp contrast to the lizard-textured red of the outer shell. When peeled, they give off a strong, sweet, floral aroma. It is no surprise, then, given my penchant for floral tones, that the lychee is my next featured ingredient.
Lychees, also spelled litchi, liche, lizhi, lichee or li zhi, originated in China, and were first notably mentioned in Chinese record in 1059 C.E. Since then, lychees have made their way around the world, becoming popular in Burma, then India and later Europe and the New World. The fruit stems from the soaptree family, which includes maples, rambutans and some chestnuts. Very similar to lychees, longan fruits are gaining popularity, and recent research suggests that both trees yield more fruit when cross-pollination occurs.
Once again, I’ve picked what I consider an under-utilized ingredient, one that frequently appears in drinks but rarely anything else. Only the occasional dessert appears with lychee in tow, and they most commonly take the form of lychee-flavored mochi. While there is nothing wrong with any of this—the flavor is just the right amount of pungent in a drink, and mochi are a great platform for the fruit—lychee magic is worth so much more. The challenge with them is their resistance to use. Slippery and almost rubbery, they do not lend themselves to baking. And with the pit of a stone fruit in a mandarin-sized fruit, the hassle does not seem to be worth it. The truth is that lychees are no more difficult than peaches to deal with and carry with them an intense floral flavor no peach can rival. Because of the fruit’s extremely low level of pectin, a compound in fruits that acts much like gelatin, it is rarely made into jams or jellies and simply refuses to thicken.
Boiling lychees. Photo courtesy of Cipora Cohon.
In my effort to employ lychees in new and exciting ways, I found myself poaching, baking, candying, pureéing and juicing the fruits. Like an egg, lychees appear to have two membranes: a peel around the fruit and a fibrous brownish one surrounding the pit. The second membrane holds the fruit in its shape and sticks around no matter what you do to the fruit, posing a bit of a challenge. Through heavy experimentation and many trials, I realized why lychees are never baked and hardly (if ever) juiced. Bits and pieces integral to the fruit quickly burn or turn into thorn-like perils. For the sake of time and simplicity, I have elected to only pursue fairly simple recipes that include lychee. To begin, a simple salad that combines some of my favorite fruits and vegetables, and also visually stuns. Finally, and most challengingly, a poached lychee dessert that incorporates all the delicate yet pungent sweetness of the lychee fruit but remains light and refreshing.