These beautiful fresh fruits are called lychee, litchi, liechee, liche, lizhi or li zhi, or lichee. Lychees are native to China but now cultivated in tropical and subtropical climes all over the world. Fresh lychees are a common summer sight in markets all across Asia. Their juicy white pulp is famed for it's floral fragrance and delicately sweet flavor.
Lychees have a history of cultivation going back to 1059 AD in China. Fresh lychees were so prized by the Chinese Imperial court they formed a special courier service utilizing the fastest horses to deliver them from the country side. Lychees were first described and introduced to the West in 1656 by Michal Boym, a Polish Jesuit missionary who drew the above print.
The lychee tree, also known as Litchi chinensis, is an evergreen member of the Sapindaceae family. It thrives in warm, frost free climates with high summer heat, abundant rainfall, and intense humidity. The tree can grow as high as sixty feet and prefers slightly acid yet well drained soils. Their are a wide range of lychee cultivars available to suit warmer and slightly cooler temperature ranges.
Fresh lychees are really unique in flavor. They sort of taste like a blend of fresh peach, kiwi, strawberry, mango, and a light floral note I can't quite place. Some people say they taste like grapes. While they do resemble grapes in texture lychees are unlike any grape I've ever tasted. Unfortunately, when canned they lose their lovely almost perfume-like fragrance and flavor and don't really taste like much of anything.
Other than eating lychees fresh out of hand, Pierre Hermé's signature "Ipsahan" macarons are my favorite way of enjoying lychees. Early in his career the famed French pastry chef came up with this divine combination of lychee, rose, and raspberry for the upscale boutique Ladurée. Ladurée still sells this amazing combination of pink macarons sandwiching rose buttercream and raspberries with a single fresh lychee in the center. The velvety red rose petal with a single dewdrop aside a single perfect raspberry still adorns the top of this culinary icon. Pierre Hermé continues to experiment with this amazing Ispahan flavor combination in cakes, ice cream, parfaits, and even a buche du Noel. Bibi tried making a recipe for an Ispahan flavored poundcake with fresh lychees and raspberries folded into the rose infused batter. Bibi regrets to inform you that lychees do not bake well either. They collapse into viscous, beige, and bland puddles which unattractively ooze out of your poundcake when sliced. I guess I'll just have to fly to the nearest Ladurée or Pierre Hermé's to get my next Ipsahan fix. Paris, Dubai, or Tokyo?