Everything You Need To Know About Lychee Fruit

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Satisfy your inner child and go grab some alligator strawberries, or if you're a little older at heart, lychees — or if you're a little more scientific at heart, Litchi chinensis. These bright little fruits are a sweet treat alone and a wonderfully complex ingredient to make use of with others.

Their pinkish-red durable peel hides scotch-white juicy flesh, which itself surrounds a waxy long brown pit. Lychee (pronounced "lie-chee" or "lee-chee") is noted for not only its taste and versatility, but for its aesthetic; the ruby fruit is certainly memorable with its textured covering. According to American botanist Walter T. Swingle, the very first published work documenting the different varieties of lychee dates back over some 1,200 years to 11th-century China (via The Lychee Biotechnology). 

Spelled lychee, litchi, or lichi, this fruit has found its way all around the world, featuring in both savory and sweet dishes; and as its popularity grows, so, too, do the amount of questions about it. So let's dig a little deeper and uncover what we can of these little red rubies.

Origins and history of lychee cultivation

Originating in Southeast Asia, and now with farms all around subtropical Asia, Africa, and the Americas, lychee has grown from a local delicacy into an internationally commodified cash crop. According to Britannica, lychee holds local importance to many regions in and around Asia, particularly certain parts of India and China. Cantonese culture is particularly noted for making use of lychee since ancient times in food, drink, and even some types of medicine. 

Notably and most widely grown in China and India, the earliest records of lychee cultivation dates back to the 11th century in the southern regions of China, Malaysia, and the northern regions of Vietnam. Some historians believe unofficial records refer to lychee as far back as 2,000 years ago, to the Han Dynasty, as noted in Macao Magazine.

The first recorded appearance of lychee in the western world was through trade routes in Jamaica in 1775 (via Britannica), and the first instance of successful lychee cultivation in the U.S. occurred in the early 1900s in Florida, per the website ThingsAsian, where the fruit has become an important commercial crop.

What lychees taste like and how to eat them

Once you've bought a batch of lychees, to get to the delectably sweet flesh, begin to peel the hard bumpy skin at the base of the fruit as if it were a little spiky red clementine. If the fruit is ripe, the skin should peel without too much trouble. Once you're left with the white pod of fruit cut down the base of the fruit lengthwise and remove the pit. If you're feeling particularly impatient you can just pop it into your mouth and spit out the pit when you're done like a cherry; although if you're preparing the lychee for a dessert or drink, this pop-and-go method is not recommended. 

Lychee has been described by The Spruce Eats as tasting like something between a strawberry and a watermelon with some delicate floral notes. Its consistency is somewhat between that of a dense grape and a ripe plum. Its very juicy flesh and pleasantly sweet flavors are a favorite as dessert and fruit salad toppings and many Asian recipes will feature lychee as a natural sweetener.

Drinks are, however, where this fruit has truly come to shine. From little pieces of lychee found in teas and smoothies, to lychee jelly's rise to rival boba as the reigning drink topping, to boiled and reduced lychee simply syrup for cocktails, this little fruit can be found everywhere and for the tastiest of reasons.

The many kinds of lychee

Lychee thrives in environments near the equator and tastes as sweet as the papayas, passion fruit, and mangoes with which it shares its climate and subtropical designation. Although the trees grow wild in southern parts of Asia, there are other climates in which lychee cultivation is favorable and has been successful. Beyond the aforementioned state of Florida, lychee growers have seen success in the Mediterranean, South Africa, and Hawaii, according to Britannica — albeit to a lesser extent than those in China and India. 

There is also quite a variety of lychee strains; each with their own unique characteristics, but all still sweet and delicious. Pine Island Nursery details some of the more popular varieties of lychee, including kaimana and emperor. There are some with more flesh and smaller pits, some significantly larger, some with more concentrated flavors, and some better suited for cooking and others for drinking. Assuming you are in a region with suitable conditions, or your thumb is green enough, you can even purchase lychee trees to plant and grow lychees yourself.

Where to buy lychee fruit

If you're looking for fresh, rich lychee fruit, you'll need to wait until the summer ⁠— usually about May to September in the U.S. As recently as 2014, outlets such as ABC News were reporting you could only buy lychee in Asian supermarkets. Luckily, that's no longer true. 

The fruit is becoming increasingly available at many national U.S. chains. Recently, this summer fruit has officially arrived at Trader Joe's and other specialty shops, which regularly offer it alongside other warm weather produce. And if fresh lychee hasn't reached your local grocery yet, you can find it through local farms or Amazon. Additionally, canned or dried ("nut") versions are available year-round.

It's essential that you know what to look for when buying lychee. Pick ripe fruit since they don't ripen once plucked from the tree. Also, too many underripe lychees can be dangerous to eat because they have higher levels of toxins before they're fully ripe. So, what do ripe lychees look and smell like? The fruit should have a floral scent and should be brightly colored. They should be bigger than 1 inch and give a tiny bit when you pinch them. Don't buy the lychees if they are split or oozing. 

How to store lychees

Just as with most other fruits, lychees should be left out to ripen and refrigerated to keep fresh. Per Pantry Tips, lychees left at room temperature will expire after two to three days, but in the fridge, they can last up to a week (to be safe, five days). You can also freeze lychee fruit, and this, according to the website, will preserve them for six months.

Generally there is no consensus on what temperature to eat your lychees, so whether enjoying them fresh and frosty out of the fridge or slow and sweet at room temperature just make sure to really relish them. A grocery bag full of them in the fridge or a bowl of them left out always seems to vanish quickly.

Buying canned or dried lychee is also a great alternative to buying them fresh as they can be used as different ingredients that take a little less preparation, have some different flavor profiles, and have a much longer shelf life.

Nutritional benefits of lychee

The lychee fruit (or pulp) may be delicious but the seeds or pits should not be consumed, as they contain certain chemical compounds that in large doses and in unhealthy bodies can be damaging. A 2014 study, published in the peer-reviewed journal The Lancet, linked large amounts of lychee consumption in malnourished children in India and Vietnam with encephalopathy, resulting in symptoms like seizures and loss in some brain functions. It is worth noting that these were niche cases in malnourished children and normal lychee consumption in healthy children and adults is completely safe.  

Nutritionally, lychees actually provide many of the same health benefits as fruits such as strawberries and blueberries. According to Harvard Health, daily servings of fruits and vegetables have been found to drastically reduce risks of death from various health issues, meaning eating lychee is not only a tasty treat but could prove a lifesaving survival strategy. WebMD, meanwhile, states that lychees are high in antioxidants and vitamin C — essential nutrients for a healthy body; so no matter who you are at heart, grabbing some little alligator strawberries will help it pump a little cleaner.

Who shouldn't eat lychee fruit

Lychee fruit is delicious and generally nutritious, but that doesn't mean it's suitable for everyone. Researchers at Humboldt University in Berlin and University Hospital in Zürich found that people with latex or sunflower seed allergies may be more prone to have adverse reactions, such as anaphylaxis, when consuming or even touching lychees. That's because all of these items contain high levels of a protein known as profilin, which triggers an allergic reaction. 

Additionally, lychee fruit has been found to lower blood sugar, which could be beneficial in managing diabetes (via China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences and Beijing University of Chinese Medicine). However, if people with diabetes are already on medicine to lower their blood sugar, they might need to be careful about how much lychee they consume. More research is being done on the topic. For now, it's important to talk with your doctor and decide together whether lychee fruit is right for you. 

What's the difference between lychee and rambutan?

According to Britannica, lychee and rambutan are related — they're in the same botanical family, Sapindaceae. So it can be difficult to tell them apart, especially once the fruit has been peeled. Even still, lychee and rambutan are different, with some very key separations between the two fruits. Rambutans (Nephelium lappaceum) are bigger than lychees (Litchi chinensis), but probably the most significant difference is the spiky-looking hair covering the rambutan. Rambutans sort of resembles little Koosh balls or sea anemones. 

Rambutan and lychee are both high in vitamin C and should be peeled before you enjoy them. As with lychee, you don't want to eat the rambutan seeds. Regarding taste, rambutans are creamier and don't have the same floral flavor lychees do. But, you can eat the flesh the way you would eat lychees. They are different fruits for all their similarities, and they both deserve a spot on your table.

Lychee recipes

Now that you know all about lychees, you probably want to know what to do with them. While they're a delicious snack on their own, they are absolutely fantastic in recipes. A popular use for them is in cocktails, such as this Hawai'ian basil and lychee cocktail recipe. Floral and fragrant basil and lychee are a classic combination. For another Hawai'ian recipe with lychee, try this pa'i'ai with lychee, ho'io, and dried shrimp recipe, which is fried taro root topped with lychee and dried-shrimp relish.

Come October, grab a can of lychees and make a bowl of this Halloween Eyeball Punch recipe. Suppose you want something a little more every day. In that case, lychee preserves are a great reason why you should consider making homemade jam and can contribute unique flavors to some vegetarian recipes the whole family will love. While you can buy canned lychees year-round, preserving your own into a jam allows you to control how much sugar you use. Another way to make lychee a year-round treat is also one of the absolute best uses for a dehydrator: fruit leather. All you have to do is purée your lychee before dehydrating it.