Lychee is a tropical fruit that is unique in appearance and flavor. It's native to China but can grow in certain warm regions of the U.S like Florida and Hawaii. Lychee is also known as "alligator strawberry" for its red, bumpy skin. Lychees are round or oblong in shape and are 1 ½ to 2 inches in diameter. Their opaque white flesh is fragrant and sweet, with floral notes. Lychee fruit can be eaten on its own, used in tropical fruit salads, or blended into cocktails, juices, smoothies, and desserts.
What Is Lychee Fruit?
In Asia, the lychee fruit is prized for its greater proportion of flesh to peel and is most often eaten on its own. Also called a lychee nut, the fruit is comprised of three layers: the reddish husk, white flesh, and brown seed. Although the exterior looks leathery and tough, it's very easy to remove using just your fingers. This will reveal a white interior with a glossy sheen and firm texture, similar to a grape.
How to Use Lychee
To prepare a lychee, remove the husk and the stone. If you are simply eating the lychees out of hand, you can place the entire white ball of flesh in your mouth and then spit out the seed. Your thumbnail works best for piercing open the bumpy outer "alligator skin." Once you uncover the fruit, gently peel the skin back, similar to the technique used to peel an orange. The skin of a ripe lychee should pierce easily and slide off almost effortlessly.
If you're preparing lychee for use in a recipe, peel the fruit, then carefully score it in half to reveal the stone or seed. Next, open up the two halves of the fruit; the seed should stick to one side, similar to an avocado. Use your finger and thumb to pinch and slightly dig under the other side of the stone to remove the seed. Ripe lychee should expel its seed quite easily, but don't worry if the fruit tears a little in the process.
What Does It Taste Like?
The flavor of lychee fruit is described in a few different ways. Some say it tastes like a cross between a strawberry and a watermelon, while others taste a blend of citrus and rose water or other floral note, owing to the fruit's sweet, strong aroma.
Lychee Fruit Recipes
Because of the fruit's unique flavor, serving it on its own is the most popular preparation. Add ripe lychee to a fruit salad or green salad for a burst of juicy sweetness or, boil with sugar and water to create a simple syrup for cocktails (like a martini), ice cream, sorbet, and sweet summer tea.
Lychee pairs well with tropical fruit like mango, coconut, banana, passion fruit, and pineapple, so keep that in mind when using your lychee nuts. It also works well in a jelly.
Where to Buy Lychee
Finding fresh lychee fruit can be tricky; if you are lucky enough to live in an area that grows lychee, you can purchase—or pick!—the fruit in the summer when it is harvested in June and July. Depending on where the lychee comes from, the season will range from May through September. Otherwise, visit your local Asian market or purchase vacuum-sealed or canned lychee online. You may also come across dried lychees, which have a crunchy texture.
When buying fresh lychees (or picking them straight from the tree), choose fruit that is larger than an inch in diameter with bright red skin. Check for ripeness by gently pressing on the skin with your thumb — it should feel a little bouncy. Ripe lychee should be vibrant in color and free of blemishes and soft spots. Once picked, lychee fruit ceases to ripen, making it imperative that it's sold as fresh as possible. If any of the fruit is cracked, oozing liquid, or smells fermented, the lychee has already spoiled.
Since lychee ferments as it ages, it is important to store it properly. Wrap the fruit in a paper towel and place in a perforated plastic zip-top bag, and store in the refrigerator for up to a week. It is best, however, to use them quickly to enjoy their unique flavor at its freshest.
For longer storage, lychee can be frozen; simply place in a zip-top bag, remove any excess air, and place in the freezer. The skin may discolor a bit, but the fruit inside will still be tasty. In fact, eaten straight from the freezer, they taste like lychee sorbet.