What Is Lychee? A Guide to the Delicately Sweet Tropical Fruit
It's common for a lot of kids to get those little cups of fruit cocktail for snacks. For me, I enjoyed canned lychee, a tropical fruit that's—depending on where you're from—commonly pronounced like "lai-chi" or "lee-chee" (how I've always said it). The white, almost transparent fruit with a hard red shell is a staple in Asian cuisine and one I can eat like candy. Recently, it's started showing up more and more on American menus, especially in cocktails and desserts. In fact, I recently enjoyed a delicious lychee martini at my favorite local sushi restaurant. Anyone new to lychee might be wondering how to eat it or what it tastes like. Get ready to learn all that and more in this guide to the wonderful lychee fruit.
What Is Lychee?
Lychee (Litchi chinensis) is a fruit that belongs to the soapberry family, Sapindaceae, and is native to the provinces of Kwangtung and Fukien in southern China. A lychee tree grows between 30-100 feet and produces clusters of 2-20 fruit. Lychee exterior is red, oval-shaped, and about 1-2 inches wide. Beneath the skin lies the thick, translucent-white portion of lychee fruit covering a seed. Choose fresh lychee fruit that is reddish-pink (though browner skins are perfectly OK to eat as well).
Since they need a tropical climate to grow, lychees are often imported (with the exception of Hawaii and some areas of Florida). Peak seasons vary depending on the country they're coming from, but mostly show up in the U.S. from May to September. If you get your hands on fresh lychees, store them for up to one week wrapped in a paper towel inside a breathable or perforated storage bag ($7, Target).
Lychee contains a decent amount of vitamin C and is a great option for meeting your daily fruit serving. There is also a study that shows fresh lychee fruit could contain antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Lychee Vs. Rambutan
Mostly found in Malaysia and Thailand, rambutan is very similar to lychees in flavor and texture, but it's the appearance that will make you take a second look due to its "hairy" exterior. (The term "rambu" means hairy in Malay.) Rambutan is also less acidic than lychee, with a flavor profile similar to that of a strawberry.
How to Eat Lychee
Don't let that tough exterior scare you. First, crack open the lychee just below the stem. From there, the leathery red skin is easily peeled away (or popped out by squeezing from the opposite end) to reveal the fruit that feels sort of like a grape without the peel. Eat the lychee fruit just like you would a cherry, discarding the seed. For the best flavor, lychees shouldn't be peeled until just before eaten or served.
What Does Lychee Taste Like?
The aromatic lychee is sweet, with slightly floral and acidic notes. Upon biting, you'll get a juicy flavor burst with a taste similar to a strawberry or pear with a hint of citrus. Some also compare the floral taste to rose.
Now that you've learned all about lychees, keep an eye out for them at your local Asian or international market. If there aren't any fresh lychees in stock, go with canned lychee (which is delicious frozen or served over ice). Fresh or canned, enjoy lychee plain, in a cocktail, or even in a savory salsa.