Lychee, Litchi chinensis,
is a tropical and subtropical evergreen hardwood tree native to Southern China and Southeast Asia. The lychee tree bears a popular Asian fruit whose edible flesh is encased in a distinctive bumpy red, leathery rind or pedicarp. Fresh lychees are a juicy, sweet and fragrant delicacy with a slightly acid taste that blends the flavors of grapes, strawberries and watermelon. They are round, oval or heart-shaped and the size of small apricots.
Lychees are sometimes called “alligator strawberries” because their rind resembles alligator skin. The term, “lychee nut,” is a misnomer – lychees are not nuts – and usually refers to raisin-like dried lychees which look like dried nutmeats. To the Chinese, the red, heart-shaped lychee is a symbol of romance and love.
In the past, many Americans knew lychees only as an exotic treat served for dessert in Chinese restaurants. Today, however, thanks to expanded cultivation worldwide including the United States, you can buy and enjoy fresh lychees from local supermarkets and specialty food stores. Canned and dried lychees and lychee juice are also readily available.
Ancient lychee tree cultivation began over 2,000 years ago in South China's northern forests and rainforests. Modern commercial cultivation now extends beyond China and Southeast Asia to northern India, Bangladesh, Japan, Australia, South Africa and the United States (primarily Florida, Hawaii and California). Alternate spellings include leechi
Lychees are a rich source of Vitamin C, potassium, phosphorus and calcium. One cup of fresh lychees has approximately 125 calories.
How to Choose Lychees
In general, fresh lychees are fully ripe when picked from the tree. Unlike other tropical fruits such as bananas and mangoes, lychees will not ripen further once picked. The fruit is oval, round or heart-shaped and about the size of small apricots. About 15 to 18 lychees equal one pound.
When shopping at the market or specialty food store, don't assume that all lychees are perfectly ripe. Inspect each one carefully and buy ones with:
- intact and unblemished bright pink-red to red colored rinds. Although the rind is naturally tough and leathery, it should still be pliable.
- a sweet, perfume-like fragrance
- pink-tinged translucent milky white flesh
Do not buy or eat lychees with:
- cracked or leaking rinds
- greenish-hued rinds. These immature lychees taste bitter or sour and have an unpleasant aftertaste.
- brown or heavily blemished rinds, grayish-hued flesh or fermented aroma. These are over-aged fruit that should be discarded.
How to Store Lychees
Fresh lychees have a very short shelf-life. Eat them as soon as possible after buying or freeze to enjoy all year. Canned and dried lychees have longer shelf lives.