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Litchis and Longans

NY Times lychee article from 1996:

Most Americans know litchis only as syrupy canned fruit or raisin-like dried “litchi nuts,” missing entirely the succulence and fragrance of the delicacy the Chinese have prized for millennia. Though increasingly available in mainstream markets, fresh litchis, now at peak season, remains 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 a litchi, 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 litchi right off the tree,” said Noble Hendrix, a former surgeon who fell in love with litchis and is now a leading grower, in Homestead, Fla. “But we provide the next best thing by picking in the morning and flying the fruit to New York that afternoon, so it’s on sale the next day.”

Florida litchis arrived in stores last week and will be available through the end of the month. 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 litchi 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.

The best litchis, 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 litchi trees, which grow beside waterways and on terraced hillsides. For centuries landowners vied in procuring the finest varieties, including the ‘glutinous rice dumpling,’ famous for its tiny “chicken-tongue” seeds, and the fabulously fragrant and expensive ‘hanging green’ — as well as the ‘rhinoceros horn,’ the ‘round rump,’ and the ‘imperial concubine’s laugh.’ The last commemorates the celebrated Lady Yang, whose passion for litchis, fetched at great cost by the imperial courier service, helped cause the downfall of her lover, the emperor Hsüan Tsung, in 756 A.D. Litchis inspired countless poems, paintings, and elaborate treatises, and in the Ming Dynasty clubs of devotees met in temples and gardens to consume hundreds at a sitting. Today Hong Kong litchi lovers flock to public orchards to pick their own fruit and enjoy it at picnics in the shade of the litchi groves.

Experts usually say “lye-chee” rather than “lee-chee,” favoring the Cantonese over the Mandarin pronunciation, but either is correct; “lychee” is also a common variant spelling. “Litchi nut,” however, properly refers only to the dried fruit commonly sold in Chinese groceries, alongside tea soaked in litchi juice, honey from litchi blossoms, and litchi soda.

In this country the demand for fresh litchis, mostly from Asian-Americans, exceeds the domestic supply, but U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations have restricted imports, for fear of foreign fruit flies. Lured by prices of $3 to $7 a pound, smugglers bring in Asian litchis transshipped through Canada, where they are permitted because tropical pests do not survive the cold.

To counter this furtive trade, the U.S.D.A. recently legalized fresh litchis 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 the litchis,” said James Lee, a distributor of Asian produce in Monterey Park, Calif. “Customers prefer bright red skin — it’s too early to tell if the treated fruit will succeed.”

The season for Asian imports runs from early May to July; then Mexican fruit arrives, followed in August and September by Israeli litchis, treated with sulfites to preserve color. California has only a few small groves, but 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’ litchis, irradiated on the mainland to eliminate pests, will be approved later this year, if not this summer, said Peter Grosser, who supervises imports at the U.S.D.A.’s Plant Protection and Quarantine division. What’s more, Hawaiian growers are placing big bets that the outlandish-looking rambutan, a tropical relative of the litchi with wild wavy tendrils and crisper flesh, will soon get the green light.

The litchi’s closest cousin, however, is the longan, a smaller fruit that has a yellow-brown shell and a mellow musky flavor 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 litchi,” 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 litchi, it is more profitable for Floridian growers, and production is increasing more rapidly. Some say longans are not as juicy and aromatic as litchis, but customers from Indochina, where longans abound, prefer them.

Though the longan is less important than the litchi 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 are light in color and more delicately flavored than the smoky second grade. Categorized as “warm” in the Chinese medical system (as is the litchi), 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 restorative tea or soup to women after childbirth, or to treat pensiveness and overwork.

When shopping for fresh litchis in 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 Broadway, and finally on Grand Street. The best litchis are sold in traditional bundles with stems and leaves, though loose ones cost less. Look for bright red fruit, avoiding “leakers” with broken skins. Litchis taste best soon after purchase, but can be stored in the refrigerator about a week. Beware: fresh litchis are addictively irresistible, and the Chinese believe that overindulgence causes fever and nosebleed.

Chinatown Ice Cream Factory 65 Bayard Street; (212) 608-4170. Litchi ice cream.
H.C. Ginsen Co. 87A East Broadway; (212) 566-3311. Top-quality dried longans.
Heng Cheung Market 39 East Broadway; (212) 589-4859. Fresh litchis and longans.
Kam Man Food 200 Canal Street, at Mott Street; (212) 571-0330. Dried litchis and longans, litchi honey.
Mott Street Fruit Stand Corner of Chatham Square near Mott Street; no phone. Best fresh litchis and longans.

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