Looking like some sort of hybrid between a pine cone, a chestnut, a strawberry and a walnut, the lychee is a surprising fruit. The sweet, fragrant white flesh is concealed within the outer skin, and you’ll soon find that the flavor is very moreish.
This guide on how to eat a lychee covers all you need to know about this fruit. Including where to buy them, the taste, the health benefits and how to store, peel and eat lychees. Firstly, though, let’s take a look at what a lychee is.
What is a Lychee?
The lychee is a little tropical fruit. It belongs to the soapberry family, and its scientific name is Litchi Chinensis. You may also find it referred to as the lichee or litchi, or even the alligator strawberry because of its tough outer casing. This tough skin should be removed before consumption.
A typical lychee is about 2.5 centimeters (or an inch) wide and 3 to 4 centimeters (or 1.2 to 1.6 inches) long. Concealed within the fragrant flesh is one deep brown seed. The flavor includes notes of pear, watermelon, strawberry and rose.
There are various types of lychee, and most have pink to red skin. Some, however, have green skin with a reddish tinge. Lychees are native to China, but have been grown across southeast Asia for a long time. Now, lychees are also commercially produced in Africa, South America, North America and Australia. Warmer weather is the key to successful lychee cultivation.
Where and When Can I Buy it?
Lychees are often imported into the US, though they can be grown in parts of Florida and in Hawaii. They are generally more widely available between May and September. When available locally in season, June or July are the best months for buying fresh lychees.
As well as fresh lychees, you can also buy canned, vacuum-packed and crunchy dried lychees. They may be sold in supermarkets, and at farmer’s and local food markets, between late spring and early fall.
How to Pick the Perfect Fruit
Whether you’re picking a lychee from the tree or choosing which to buy, the best are those which have a vibrant, intact red skin that’s free from blemishes. The finest specimens will also be an inch (2.5 centimeters) or more wide.
When gently pressed, a perfectly ripe lychee will feel slightly springy rather than very soft. It should also smell fresh and a little floral. Once picked, a lychee will not ripen any more.
What Does a Lychee Taste Like?
The flavor of a lychee may include notes of strawberry, pear, watermelon and rose. Citrus notes may also be evident. A lychee is sweet, but with a sharper, more acidic edge.
The texture of a lychee has something of the firm crunch of a pear, offset by the yielding softness of watermelon or grape flesh.
Lychees contain a lot of water and carbohydrate, and are high in natural sugar. They’re a very hydrating fruit, but fairly low in dietary fiber. When added to dishes, they can increase sweetness.
Lychees are rich in vitamin B2 (riboflavin), vitamin C, copper and potassium. They are also a good source of plant-based antioxidants known as polyphenols. Lychees may also have anti-inflammatory properties. Consuming them may help to protect heart health and prevent cancer.
How to Peel a Lychee
A lychee’s outer skin is thinner than it may appear. It’s a little like an avocado. Once ripe, this casing is simple to remove. Just use your fingernail or a sharp knife to pierce this, before peeling off the rind. Remove the seed before eating.
How to Eat a Lychee
Lychees are often enjoyed just as they are, as a simple and delicious snack. Eating them uncooked avoids any loss of flavor.
Lychees may be added to drinks, freshly prepared fruit and side salads, ice cream, or various desserts (like my lychee panna cotta). They go well with other tropical fruits, or may even be used in savory dishes based on chicken, beef or fish.
As they’re more widely available in Asia, lychees grown there may also be made into preserves, sauces, pickles or wine. They are also de-seeded before being canned for export. In Hawaii, they may be stuffed with cream cheese and sprinkled with macadamia nuts, while in Asia they can be combined with sugar, cream and lime juice.
How to Store Lychees
Though lychees don’t ripen after picking, they will undergo fermentation. So it’s important to store them properly. To keep them fresh for longer, wrap in a paper kitchen towel and store inside a ziploc bag. They may keep this way, inside the fridge, for up to a week, whereas at room temperature they will only last for two to three days.
Lychees can also be frozen inside ziploc bags. Take care to squeeze out any excess air before transferring to the freezer. They can be eaten without defrosting, and taste like a fruit sorbet in this case.
Damp, soggy lychees are overripe, and may also be fermented. Or even rotten. A soaking wet or disintegrating skin indicates that the lychee may be rotten. A sour, acidic odor like vinegar can also be a warning sign.
Varietal differences mean that a lychee’s skin may be yellowish rather than red. However, when the rind is brown or very dark, this usually means the lychee is decomposing and should be disposed of.
It should be fairly easy to peel a ripe lychee. Inside, the lychee flesh should be firm and whitish in color. Discolored flesh should be avoided.
A lychee seed should not be eaten, as this is mildly toxic. The seed contains an amino acid that’s capable of causing a decline in blood sugar levels, and can have a negative impact on brain activity. Consumption might also result in sickness. In high doses, it may cause a loss of consciousness or even death.
Rambutan is a fruit often found in Thailand and Malaysia. Its skin is thick and hairy rather than thin and bumpy, and is bright green or orange in color. Once the outer casing is removed, lychees and rambutan look more similar.
Both have a large seed surrounded by succulent white flesh. Upon tasting the fruit, though, you’ll find that rambutan is sweeter than lychee, with a flavor more like a strawberry. Rambutan has a stronger, sweeter flavor, and is also more creamy. By comparison, lychee flesh is firmer, and is also more floral in terms of aroma and flavor.
How to Eat Lychee
- Fresh lychees
- Use your fingernail or a sharp knife to pierce the lychee's outer skin and peel it. The rind should come off easily.
- Now you can either cut the lychee in half or score the flesh along one side to reveal the seed and remove it. The seed is not edible.
- That's it! Now you can enjoy your lychee. Don't worry about the brown membrane that's stuck to the flesh – it's perfectly edible.