Cracking The Lychee 'Nut' Don't let the prickly skin deter you. Beneath that tough exterior is a bold, luscious fruit with tons of potential, from savory main courses to dessert.

Cracking The Lychee 'Nut'

Inside the cobbled shell of each lychee is a luscious white fruit tasting not unlike a grape -- with stronger, bolder flavors. Eve Turow for NPR hide caption

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Eve Turow for NPR

It was hour two of the bus ride from San Jose, Costa Rica, to the center of San Isidro, and I was hot, dirty and tired. Droopy eyed, I gazed out the bus window.

"Mamochinos, mamochinos!" children yelled at the edge of the clay-caked road, holding up plastic bags of what, to me, looked like sea urchins: red, spiky balls with yellow tentacles shooting out from a rough shell. The bus pulled over, and within moments our trip leader was passing around bags filled with these strange objects. As I took one in my hands, the spikes tickled my palm. I turned it around and around, expecting an eye to open or a tentacle to take hold of my finger. However, it stayed perfectly still, as a fruit should.

I had discovered rambutans. Following my peers, I dug my nails into the prickly skin and peeled it back. Inside was a white, pearly pulp, shining with juice. As I popped the fruit into my mouth, the flavors danced on my tongue. It was like a grape, but with stronger, bolder flavors, a substantial shell and a large brown nut in the center.

Rambutans belong to the same family, Sapindaceae, as lychees and longans. Peeled, the three fruits are hard to differentiate. Unpeeled, lychees resemble rambutans without the hair, as do longans, which are smaller, green and also hairless. If I had been introduced to this fruit family with the tentacle-free lychee or longan, the experience might have been less intimidating.

Canned rambutan, longan and lychee fruits -- all part of the Sapindaceae family -- can be found in supermarkets. hide caption

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Canned rambutan, longan and lychee fruits -- all part of the Sapindaceae family -- can be found in supermarkets.

Of these three, lychees are the most easily found in the United States. Though native to southern China, where they have been cultivated for 2,000 years, lychees are grown in the United States as well as throughout Asia, Africa, Australia, parts of South America and Central America.

Possibly because of the Chinese affection for lychees, they are often associated with Chinese cuisine. According to a Chinese folktale, Lady Yang Kuei Fei of the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 712-756) loved lychees so much, Emperor Xuanzong sent his men 500 miles on horseback to southern China to get his consort her prized fruit -- an act that some say caused this emperor's demise. During the later Ming Dynasty, men gathered to eat the fruits in a "lychee club."

About The Author

Eve Turow is a native Chicagoan currently residing in Washington, D.C. Often she can be found wandering the stands of D.C. farmers markets. She has previously written on the topics of food and travel for a local publication in Buenos Aires, and semi-regularly blogs about food, music and travel at Bacchus & I.

In the U.S., lychee season begins in May and extends through the summer, with lychee farms having popped up in recent years in California, Texas and Florida. Do not let the growing season deter you, though. Lychees are available year-round in major supermarkets with a price tag of up to $3.50 for a 20-ounce can.

I rediscovered lychees years after my initial introduction, in a swanky New York bar. A friend far more tuned into trendy drinks than I, ordered herself a lychee martini. It arrived in a wide martini glass with a milky-blue hue and a plump lychee sitting at the bottom. I asked for a sip. The sweet flavor immediately transported me back to Costa Rica and reminded me of afternoons spent peeling back the skins of the rambutans and sucking in the pulp and juice.

For such an easily found, fragrant fruit, it is surprising that lychees are not used more in U.S. cuisine. Lychees show up in frozen yogurt, bubble tea and martini glasses, but less often on dinner plates. In China, however, lychees are commonly cooked with pork, shrimp and chicken; with duck in Thailand, and as a snack in places as diverse as Nicaragua and Australia. It seems time that North American cooks and diners invite the lychee into the kitchen.