At a gelati stand, I remember being thoroughly confused when my friend asked, “So what kind of nut is the lychee?”
“Huh?” I exclaimed.
The friend fairly thumped the counter pane with his finger, indicating the near-empty tub of Lychee Nut Sorbet.
“The lychee isn’t a nut... it’s a fruit!” I said.
“Bet?” challenged the friend. He knew two things: 1) that I would be dying to rush home to consult the google gods; and 2) that I had an afternoon of appointments far away from civilization. This fiend-friend delights in tormenting me.
But he soon owed me dessert. As it turns out, this whole lychee nut business stems from a mistake. Lychees deteriorate quickly once picked and dry out in days if left in a cool, non-humid environment. The warty, ordinarily deep red skin (sometimes tinged with green) browns and turns brittle, while the luscious, creamy white flesh on the inside shrivels like a raisin. Somewhere along the way, a very confused person decided these dried lychees were nuts—a mistake that has enjoyed a curious longevity on Chinese restaurant menus.
What Do Lychees Taste Like?
Fresh lychees are easily peeled but require some care—I’ve had lychee juice in my eye more often than I like, and while it doesn’t sting (or stain clothes), it’s not terribly glamorous. Good lychees have a beautifully lush, floral perfume. Sweet but not too sweet, with an occasional hint of tartness, they pair well with flavors such as jasmine, rose (think Pierre Hermé's Ispahan line), kaffir lime, ginger, oolong tea, and coconut. Bad lychees will cause your toes to curl and your mouth to pucker. More often than not, these lychees may also have been sitting for too long in drenched baskets and may be showing the first signs of mold.
How Can You Use Lychees?
I reckon there’s nothing more refreshing than a handful of lychees (peeled and seeded) tossed in a blender with some ice and vodka. It’s also mighty good in sorbet—I have an enduring obsession with lychee and kaffir lime combinations.
I used to turn up my nose at canned lychees but have since been convinced that they aren’t half bad as long as you approach them as a separate entity: think of them not as lychees but as a surprisingly complex tasting fruit in a can. The problem with the canned ones is that they’re packed in heavy syrup—by the time they reach your dinner table, they no longer have that clean, clear, intensely floral sweetness so prized in fresh lychees. The flavors are still there, but they’re kind of muddied and lost amongst the sugar syrup. Here, however, is where a faithful sidekick saves the day. If the sidekick (coconut, for instance) has a dominant enough personality to provide a flavor base for the dish—yet not overwhelm it—then the canned lychee has a chance of shrugging off its sugar syrup mantle and shining its earnest little heart out.
Don't Eat Too Many!
But over-indulgers beware: the Chinese consider the lychee a “heaty” fruit and have a saying, “one lychee equals three bolts of fire.” Like a beautiful courtesan, the lychee enraptures, but is potent stuff. It may be psychosomatic, but I’ve suffered many, many sore throats from being overly greedy and neglecting to down a cup of salt water post-gluttony (the Chinese believe this counteracts the “heatiness” of the fruit). A more appetizing remedy is to proceed to indulge in mangosteens—a “cooling” fruit!