Meet the longan. Its name literally translates to “dragon’s eye," which I can only assume stems from the way its translucent, off-white flesh resembles the eye's sclera, with a pupil-like black seed within. I was tempted to take a picture of all their beady little eyes exposed and peering out, but it’s impossible to eat just half a longan. Like biting into a plump cherry tomato or succulent grape, cramming the whole thing in your mouth is almost a matter of principle.
With a sweet, almost-crisp bite, the longan’s flavor is very much that of a subtle, floral honey. Lychees and longans are often compared to each other—probably because these two fruits come into season at the same time. Whenever you see the brilliant, glistening, ruby coat of the lychee, you’ll no doubt spot the plain, mottled brown skin of the longan, too. The poor longan, not as lusciously sweet, decadently perfumed, or extravagantly juicy as the lychee, is often put down as inferior—referred to, in fact, as the “handmaiden of the lychee."
Fresh or Dried
Yet, in the final race toward human consumption, the longan is the dark horse. Being drier, fresh longans fare much better than lychees during transportation, with significantly better odds of arriving at tables none the worse for wear. Grown in Florida and Hawaii, fresh longans appear in dishes as diverse as mahi mahi and longan ceviche and chicken with longan and macadamia salad. I like them plenty fresh and out of hand, but here’s the cincher: Unlike lychees, which aren’t very good past their prime, I’m just as enamored of longans dried.
When dried, the longan morphs into an entirely different creature. In an ugly duckling to graceful swan transformation, the flesh turns an amber brown, and takes on a delicious, vanilla-y depth. The tawny, sundried longans pictured here are the pricier ones from Thailand. But the ones I’ve found at Asian groceries in the States commonly hail from China. These have been parched over a slow fire, and are a dull, leathery black with a slight smokiness to them.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the dried longan is valued for treating insomnia and anxiety. It’s also well regarded as a blood tonic and an antidote for poison – the Vietnamese allegedly press the longan seed against snakebite wounds to draw out the snake’s venom! Healing properties or no, dried longans are wonderfully fragrant simply infused in water for tea, or boiled with rock sugar and jujube dates to make an excellent summer refresher. When I’m feeling naughty, I ditch my usual raisins and cook my breakfast oats with a handful of dried longans. I also make sure to splash in a couple of spoonfuls of coconut milk. (This same combination works marvelously in traditional rice pudding.)
I’m a skeptic with regards to the longan’s antidotal powers, but it’s decidedly hard to be anxious when your mouth’s crammed full of the fruit, its sweet nectar trickling down your chin and hands. So there just might be something there.
About the author: Wan Yan Ling can usually be found in the kitchen procrastinating on "real work" or online tracking down obscure recipes. Ling thinks eating alone is no fun, and she still believes in hand-mixing.