Lychees – “The Kings of Fruits” – are now in season.

I’m squeezing my entire face together, trying to remember. As if somehow bringing your eyes, nose and lips closer together would help your memory.

I’m trying to remember: when was the first time I ate a lychee.

I’m almost certain it was in Vietnam. Let’s say 2008. It had to be. I remember the feeling, the taste, the novelty, the dripping messy juiciness running down my chin and my fingers, the crisp sweetness with a sudden perfumed tang. The skin of the fruit – red and rough textured, like a dragon’s scales. But I can’t grasp the details, the surroundings, the people. They remain fuzzy and deliciously formless.

I’m tempted to say lychees are my favourite fruit altogether.

In Paris, lychees were my wintery delicacy, something I’d indulge in after long, tiring days at work. I’d buy them in huge heaps from the fruit & vegetable market on my street, where the Moroccan sales men knew me almost by name. (“Bonsoir, mademoiselle Finlande! Ca va aujourd’hui?” – For clarification: my “name” abroad rarely is Sara, it’s “the Finnish girl”, la finlandaise, die Finne. True to form.)

I prefer lychees to rambutans and longans. You know rambutans? They’re like lychees who need a haircut. And longans, they’re like the lychee’s bald old uncle with liver spots.

Usually, I just eat all the lychees I have. Fresh and right away. I have no patience or self-control and, quite genuinely, they really taste best just the way they are. However, if you’re new to lychees, I do recommend experimenting with them a little. Frozen lychees are wonderful – if you’ve ever eaten frozen grapes, lychees have a similar, fine and tender sorbet-like texture without any loss of flavour and fragrance. You can also mix some mean drinks: lychee martinis are usually made with syrup, but a lychee margarita put through the blender will hit the winter drink jackpot. You can even make a salsa with them, or chuck some in a stir-fry.

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Lychee eating also has a long and intriguing history. They’re originally from the mountains and tropical rainforests of southern China (especially the Guangdong region) and they’ve been hugely popular throughout their known history. That seemingly stretches back to around 2000BC. The 1st Century Imperial Court was hit with such a lychee-fever, that the emperor organised a special express courier service with fast horses and the finest riders, who would bring them fresh from the region of Guangdong. Sounds a bit like the Amazon Prime of its time.

In Europe, lychee season is unarguably around Christmas time and continues past New Year. For some reason, lychees tend to be imported to Europe from the southern hemisphere especially during winter, even though they can be found ripe almost all year round. The Chinese and other Southeast-Asian varieties tend hit their peak between June and July.

Sara’s Quick Lychee FAQ!

Ok so, I got these lychees now from the shop. What do I do now?

Are you going to eat them right this second? Yes? Put them in your mouth. No? Put them in the fridge. Don’t take your sweet time, make a snap decision. If you bought so many lychees that you won’t be able to eat them in the next couple of days, freeze them. You can either leave the skin on or peel them. Both work – it depends a bit on how you want to use them once frozen. (Hot tip: they make mind-blowing frozen smoothies/milkshakes for summer.)

I’m going to eat one now. How do I eat it?

As fast as you can, so you can grab another one. But seriously though, there are quite a few ways to eat a lychee and none of them is “right” or “wrong”. The following technique, however, is what I have found to be the most convenient and effective for this magnificent fruit.

  1. Feel the fruit. Gently press it between your fingers. Peak ripeness is when the fruit gives in just a little and the skin hasn’t hardened yet. Yet it’s firm enough that you know it’s not rotting. That’s the sweet spot.
  2. Nip and lift up the stem with your fingernail, revealing the white, translucent flesh.
  3. Start peeling the fruit in a spiral pattern.
  4. If the lychee is particularly juicy – as the often are – I only peel it mid-way and squeeze the fruit out of the shell directly into my mouth. Less juicy specimens, you can peel all the way.
  5. Eat it. Spit out the pit.
  6. See step 1.  

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Alternate ending: cut the peeled lychee open either with your fingernail or a knife and remove the pit. Serve in a bowl as a snack, process further into drinks or foods or freeze in a sealed container.

I ate a lychee and it tasted bad and bitter. Eff you, Sara. You lied to me. I don’t like you anymore.

Now hold on a minute! You must’ve had a “bad apple”. See, lychees are special in that they do not ripen after picking. This is starkly different to most other tropical fruits such as mangoes, bananas and even avocados. If the fruit is picked early, it’s almost always bitter and with an unpleasant aftertaste. Unfortunately, this is a risk we have to take: often large commercial growers pick their fruit too early in order to get it to distribution when the prices are at their peak. But don’t give up – just try another!

Oh yes, YES! Sara – you were right. These are amazing. I can’t stop eating them. I’ve already eaten a kilo. Can I eat too many and get sick?

I never have.

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Get yours while you can.

Ps. Canned lychees are horrible, don’t eat them.