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Lychees and Their Kin
Fruits, Desserts, and Other Sweet Foods
Spring Volume: 1997 Issue: 4(1) page(s): 5, 6, and 22
Most Americans know lychees only as syrupy canned fruit or raisin-like dried lychee nuts, missing entirely the succulence and fragrance of the delicacy the Chinese have prized for millennia. Though increasingly available in mainstream markets, fresh lychees remain primarily an Asian specialty item. Aficionados head to Chinatown for clusters of the rosy ping pong ball–size fruit, still attached to leafy stems. To eat that lychee, they peel the thin, slightly leathery and spiky skin, pull the translucent white flesh from the glossy brown seed, and savor the texture and flavor reminiscent of a muscat grape.
“Nothing beats the perfumed lusciousness of a lychee right off the tree,” said Noble Hendrix, a former surgeon who fell in love with lychees and is now a leading grower, in Homestead, FL. "But we provide the next best thing by picking in the morning and flying the fruit to New York that afternoon, so it is on sale the next day.” Florida lychees arrive in stores in the last week of May and are available through the end of June.
The first commercial groves flourished in the 1950’s on the state’s central ridge, but a disastrous freeze in 1958 virtually destroyed the industry. In recent decades cultivation revived around Homestead in southern Dade County, only to be devastated in August 1992 by Hurricane Andrew, which stripped the trees of limbs and leaves. Afterwards, growers replanted up to 500 acres, producing almost half a million pounds of fruit yearly, which should more than triple in a few years as new trees mature.
Florida growers raise two main varieties: the early-season Mauritius has skin tinged with green, and is crisper and less sweet than the late-season Brewster, which is a brilliant, almost iridescent purplish-red. On a scale of 1 to 10, Dr. Robert Knight, a lychee expert at the University of Florida at Homestead, rates the Mauritius a 4 and the Brewster a 6 or 7, but the Mauritius has predominated in recent years because it bears more heavily.
Southern Florida has a pretty good climate for growing lychees, but doesn't always get the winter cold necessary to induce flowering in winter. “It is hard to perpetuate the desirable characteristics of prized cultivars under conditions different from the fruit’s place of origin,” noted Dr. Frances Zee, a lychee specialist with the National Clonal Germplasm Repository in Hilo, Hawaii.
The best lychees, the 9’s and 10’s, grow in Guangdong and Fujian provinces in southern China, the fruit’s homeland. The local climate, hot and rainy in summer and cool in winter, perfectly suits the attractive evergreen lychee trees, which grow beside waterways and on terraced hillsides.
First certain Chinese references to lychees date back two thousand years, and the fruit has long been important in the life of the Chinese people, as well as in art and literature. Traditionally, landowners vied in procuring the finest varieties, including the 'glutinous rice dumpling,' famous for its tiny 'chicken-tongue' seeds, and the fabulously fragrant 'hanging green,' which early this century sold for close to an ounce of gold per pound of fruit--as well as the 'rhinoceros horn,' the 'round rump,' and the 'imperial concubine’s laugh.' The last commemorates the celebrated Lady Yang Kuei Fei, the Precious Consort of the great T’ang emperor Hsüan Tsung. Her passion for lychees, fetched at great cost by the imperial courier service, helped cause the downfall of her lover in 756 CE. The T’ang poet Tu Mu recollected the legend in a famous work:
Looking back at Chang-an, an embroidered pile appears;
Of the many elaborate Chinese treatises on the lychee, that of Ts’ai Hsiang, from 1059 CE, is the earliest and most famous. In the second chapter, he deals with the lychee in his native province, Fukien, and especially the incomparable 'Chen family purple lychee, and says:
When the Chen family are about to harvest their crop of lychee, they close all their gates or doors and people desiring to purchase the fruit must hand in thir money through an aperture in the wall, receiving in return, its equivalent in lychee fruit. For what the purchaser was able to obtain, he was thankful and considered himself lucky.
In Groff's time, some landowners even required peasants to sing songs while harvesting prized lychees, to guarantee that they were not eating any of the fruit!
Su Shih, a high official and poet exciled to Hainan in 1904 CE for having spoken disrespectfully of the emperor, found solace in lychees saying:
Beneath these green mountains where spring rules the year
In another anecdote, related by Edward Shafer in The Golden Peaches of Samarkand, two dancing girls sent as tribute on the accession of Shun Tsung were said to dine on lychees, gold dust, and 'dragon-brain' camphor. Shafer states in the Vermillion Bird that although excellent lychees were grown in Fujian and Sichuan in T'ang times, Nam-Viet was its true home. By the end of the ninth century, the residents of Guangdong held a festival to celebrate the ripening of the lychee, visiting the best orchads and gardens decked out with festive hangings.
In the Ming Dynasty, a club of devotees met in temples and gardens in Fujian to consume hundreds of lychees at a sitting, and compose poems and paintings celebrating the treasued fruit. Today, Hong Kong lychee lovers flock to public orchards to pick their own fruit and enjoy it at picnics in the shade of lychee groves.
Chinese connoisseurs set great store in distinguishing the different qualities of lychees, and, according to Groff, use clear-cut terminology which is difficult to translate into English: The form of the lychee can be round, egg- or heart-shaped, the shoulders can be high or low, the skin can be thick or thin, rough or smooth. The flesh can be crisp or dry and crisp; the Chinese especailly prize the quality called kan cheih meaning that the juice of the lychee remains entirely within the flesh rather than running out into the shell when it is removed. They also prefer fruit with very little cha, which is translated as "rag," the part of the seed which sometimes sticks to the flesh.
Experts usually say 'lye-che' rather than 'lee-chee,' favoring the Cantonese over the Mandarin pronunciation, but either is correct; 'litchi' is also a common variant spelling. 'Lychee nut,' however, properly refers only to the dred fruit commonly sold in Chinese groceries, alongside tea soaked in lychee juice, honey from lychee blossoms, and lychee soda. Canned lychees, in light and heavy syrup, are available from Thailand, China, and Taiwan.
In this country, the demand for fresh lychees, mostly from Asian-Americans, exceeds the domestic supply, but United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations have restricted imports, for fear of foreign fruit flies. Lured by prices of three to seven dollars a pound, smugglers bring in foreign lychees transshipped through Canada, where they are permitted because foreign pests do not survive the cold.
To counter this furtive trade, in 1994 and 1995 the USDA legalized fresh lychees from China, Taiwan and India, the world's largest producers. However, this fruit must undergo about two weeks of cold treatment to kill insects, leaving the shells brown and brittle, and sometimes causing the flavor to be off.
"The cold is crucial, but cruel for lychees," said James Lee, a distributor of Asian produce in Monterey Park, California. "Customers prefer bright red skin--it's too early to tell if the treated fruit will succeed." But by last July, imported Asian lychees were increasingly common on the streets of Chinatown, succeeding, at least in part, because they underpriced the competition.
The season for Asian imports runs from early May to July; then Mexican fruit, which tends to be of mediocre quality, arrives, followed in August and September by Israeli lychees, treated with sulfites to preserve color and protect against mold. About eighty percent of the Israeli crop is Mauritius, and twenty percent Floridian, from a seedling of Brewster. Some of the first shipments of Israeli fruit four years ago tasted a bit musty, but quality has improved in recent seasions.
Lychees fruit in California wherever avocados flourish, according to Roger Meyer, a nurseryman and member of California Rare Fruit Growers, but land is expensive, so there are only a few small plantings. Hawaii, where the high cost of labor has forced 100,000 acres of sugar cane out of production, may soon be a major source: Shipments of the islands' lychees, irradiated on the mainland to eliminate psets, will most likely be approved shortly, said Peter Gosser, who supervises imports at the USDA's Plant Protection and Quarantine division. Previously, Hawaiian lychees, harvested from May to early July, could only be sold on Hawaii or in Canada. Now growers have put in many hundreds of acres, mostly of the kaimana variety.
"Sugar cane nowadys is a third world crop. By the end of this year there won't be any on the big island," said Mike Strong, who grows twenty-five acrees of lychees on his orchard on Kauai, where some of the scenes from 'Jurassic Park' were filmed. He estimated that Hawaiian growers have put in about sixty acres in lychees, and that the amount would triple in the next few years. "We're hoping for a premium price for a top-quality product," he said.
Hawaiian growers are also placing big bets that the outlandish-looking rambutan, a tropical relative of the lychee with wild wavy tendrils and crisper flesh, will be a success on the mainland. The rambutan, whose name means 'hairy one' in Malay (Called shao tzu in China, demands a true tropical climate, and does not fruit in Florida and Califonrnia. In Hawaii, it bears year-round, the main season in fall and winter. Test shipments of irradiated rambutan arrived in Chicago last year, and this January produce stands on East Broadway in New York started selling the fruit; it is also available at Gourmet Garage stores in Soho and the Upper East Side. The first specimens I tasted ranged from a bit flabby in texture and taste to delightfully firm and sweet. "We can pick the fruit on Sunday and have it on supermarket shelves by Thursday," said Eric Weinert, a major tropical grower in Kurstistown, "we're looking to sell both to the Asian and the manistream markets."
The lychee's closest cousin is the longan, a smaller fruit that has a yellow-brown shell, off-white, translucent flesh, and a mellow musky flaovr with hints of honeydew and gardenia. The name means 'dragon's eye,' which the fruit's black seed is said to resemble; the longan is also called the 'slave of the lychee' as its season trails behind--in Florida; it runs from the third week of July through August. Because the longan is not as fussy about climatic conditions as the lychee, it is more profitable for Floridian growers, and production is increasing more rapidly. The main variety grown, the Kohala, has large fruit, small seeds, and aromatic, sweet and spicy flesh.
Some say longans are not a juicy and sweet as lychees, but customers from Indochina, where longans abound, prefer them. "Longans are not as easy to like at first taste," said Mark Ellenby, who grows 25 acres of lychee and 15 of longan in Homestead, Florida. "But once people get used to the taste, they love them."
Though the longan is less important than the lychee as a fresh fruit, it is more widely used in traditional Chinese medicine, in dried form. Ginseng and herbal medicine stores, as well as food shops, often carry the sweet pulps; the best quality is light in color and more delicately flavored than the smoky second grade. Categorized as "warm" in the Chinese medical system (as is the lychee), dried longan is used in combination with other ingredients, to tonify and nourish the blood, calm the spirit, and provide energy; it is often given in a restrotative tea or soup to women after childbirth, or to treat pensiveness and overwork.
When shopping for fresh lychees in New York City's Chinatown, I follow a triangular route, looking first at fruit markets on Mott or Mulberry street in the blocks near canal Street, then on Chatham Square and East Boradway, and finally on Grand Street. The best lychees are sold in traditional bundles with stems and leaves; often the bunches hang in mid-air, suspended by cords or ribbons. Loose lychees cost less. Look for bright red fruit, avoiding 'leakers' with broken skin. Lychees taste best soon after purchase, but can be stored in the refrigerator about a week. Beware: fresh lychees are addictively irresitible, and the Chinese believe that overindulgence causes fever and nosebleed.
Throwing caution to the winds, last June 13, I held a lychee tasting at my apartment for about forty guests; friends, chefs, journalists, and fellow fruit-fanciers. I deliberately chose a date on the cusp of the seasons for Maurituis and Brewster, to be able to compare the two main varieties. Noble Hendrix, famous for the quality of his luchees, sent me a box of each kind, as well as a rare variety, Kwai Mai Pink, by Fedex. True to its reputation, Brewster was the sweetest, but each variety had its partisans. Replete with rambutans and mangosteens, lychee tea and ice cream, photos of lychees on the walls, and Chnese classical music, the evening might even have delighted the lychee scholar and connoisseur Wu Tasi Ao, who long ago observed:
The first day after picking, the lychee loses its color, the second day its fragance, the third its taste, and by the end of the fourth or fifth day all color, taste, and fragrance are gone.
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