The lychee fruit (also known as "litchi") originated in Asia and is considered prized native produce in China. At first glance, lychee looks like a strawberry with bumpy skin—the exterior of the red fruit is tough (hence the name "alligator strawberries"). In order to get to the yummy goodness inside this tropical fruit, you must first peel off the rough exterior. Once peeled, lychee is white in color and resembles the inside of a grape; but its sweet, delicious flavor is more like a cross between a strawberry and a watermelon.
Origins of Lychee Fruit
Lychee is native to Southeast Asia and has been used in Cantonese cooking for many years. It is grown commercially in India and China. It arrived in the western world in 1775 when it reached Jamaica and is now grown in the U.S. in places with warm climates, like Florida and Hawaii, and can be harvested in June or July.
If you're lucky enough to live where this tropical fruit grows, choosing the right time to harvest can be tricky, as the fruit ceases to ripen once picked. Make sure to select brightly colored fruit, with a deep red hue and no blemishes. The skin of ripe lychee should be pliable, even though it's texture is naturally tough and leathery. Pick one and sample its taste; if the lychee tastes sour, it's not ripe. And fruit that is cracked, leaking, or smells fermented may be past its prime.
You can also seek out fresh lychee at your local specialty store and use the same principles for selecting ripe fruit as you would for harvesting them. Buy lychee that is bright in color with pliable exteriors, and free from bruises or cracks.
Much like a pomegranate, the good stuff lies just beneath a leathery outer skin and thin inner membrane. As the ripened fruit ages, the skin and membrane lose water, become tough, and fuse together. Most lychees that you buy in the store (and pomegranates for that matter) have already cured to the point of fusion. Once you purchase them, you should peel and eat them immediately.
You can also purchase canned lychee and dried lychee, or "litchi nuts," at specialty grocers.
Peeling lychee is the only way to get to the edible flesh. To peel fresh-off-the-tree lychee, simply tear off one end of the protective skin with your fingers, and then pinch the opposite side to release the fruit into your mouth or into a bowl. Alternatively, use your fingernail to dig into the stem side and peel the skin off the lychee. If you're peeling a large quantity for a recipe, use a serrated knife to score the skin lengthwise. Then, peel away both the skin and the inner membrane to expose the luscious fruit that surrounds a large seed. To loosen the seed, cut lengthwise around the flesh (similar to cutting an avocado). If the fruit is properly ripened, the flesh should easily pull away from the seed.
Fresh lychee, with the skin still intact, should be wrapped in a paper towel, placed in a perforated plastic bag, and stored in the refrigerator until use. They ferment as they age, so use them quickly and do not let them sit in the fridge for more than one week. You can also freeze lychee by placing the fruit, skin on, in a zip-top bag; simply put lychee in a gallon-sized bag, partially seal it, and remove the remaining air out of the bag before zipping it completely. The less air in the bag, the fresher the lychee will taste once thawed.
Fresh lychee makes a great addition to any fruit salad. You can also macerate them and use them as a featured fruit in a tropical jam. Additionally, fresh lychee can be incorporated into many simple and exotic desserts and sauces, as well as smoothies and cocktails. The dried form of the fruit, which looks and tastes much like a raisin, can be eaten straight out of your hand as a snack or incorporated into homemade granola or oatmeal.