The lychee fruit is tropical treat that’s a relative newcomer to the US, but it’s a traditional favorite throughout Asia. Native to China, where it has been cultivated and enjoyed for literally thousands of years, lychee are mainly grown throughout southeast Asia but are now also grown in Hawaii and Florida.
Perhaps because it it red and roughly heart-shaped, the lychee is considered a symbol of love and romance in Chinese culture. Legend has it that during the eighth century Emperor Hsuan Tsung set up a chain of riders on fast horses to deliver lychees a distance of more than 600 miles so his favorite concubine could enjoy her favorite fruit at the peak of freshness.
Mature lychee are small, round fruit about two inches across. A bumpy red rind protects the juicy, translucent white or pinkish flesh, which has a delightful texture that is something like a cross between a grape and a pear but is sweeter than either, with a slight tang. In most cultivars the center of the fruit is a large, round seed much like a peach pit, but in cultivars native to India the seed is very small and the fruit is soft and pulpy.
Lychee are available in several forms, including fresh, dried, and canned. When refrigerated, the rind of fresh lychee darkens to a brownish color but the fruit remains sweet and soft. In dried lychee, which are often incorrectly referred to as lychee nuts, the rind darkens and the flesh shrinks but the sweetness is concentrated.
A nutritional powerhouse
Lychee are more than sweet and delicious – they’re also a great source of vitamin C. One 100 gram serving of lychee, which equals the flesh of about nine fruit, packs a whopping 72 mg of vitamin C, which actually exceeds the daily vitamin C requirement for adults by 20 percent.
Lychee are rich in copper, phosphorous, potassium, and fiber, and in Asia they’re considered both a diuretic and a digestive aid. They also contain more beta carotene than carrots, along with unsaturated fatty acids that aid in the absorption of beta carotene and other fat soluble vitamins. And the calorie “price” for all that nutrition is a very reasonable 125 calories per cup.
How To Use Lychee
Because the rind is tough and inedible, fresh lychee must be peeled to get at the succulent flesh. In fruits that are extremely fresh the flesh peeling can be as simple as tearing an opening in one end and squeezing gently, causing the flesh to pop out of the rind much as a grape can be popped from its skin. If the fruit is less fresh, the rind can be easily removed with the fingers or a paring knife.
Lychee can be enjoyed raw or cooked.