By Rochelle delaCruz
I spent July in Hilo when had plenny lychee! Not only was it lychee season, but this year there was a bumper crop. Can’t tell you how many times someone showed up at my mother’s front door with a sack of lychee. I eagerly grabbed the bag, barely thanking the giver before I started peeling these delectable jewels to scarf down. But the good thing – I suppose it’s a good thing - about fresh lychee is that we really cannot inhale them the way we might blueberries or grapes. Each one comes covered with a pokey shell which we must first peel, and no one I know can whip off the lychee shell in one swoop. So even though we don’t mean to appear genteel when eating lychee, we just might, especially since we are not only dealing with a spiny cover, but sticky lychee juice as well. As we’re peeling and eating, eating and peeling, pulling the seed away from the fleshy fruit, we’re constantly wiping our paws. Of course, there are those who wipe fingers on the t-shirt and spit out the seed, thereby erasing any veneer of gentility. But not me, only because I’m intent on enjoying all of it as I gnaw off every bit of fruit from the pit before throwing it away and licking my fingers clean.
The quality of lychee is judged in three ways and in this order: the sweetness, the size of the seed and the size of the fruit. Lychee must be sweet to be considered good, but then size kicks in. While we like to see big lychee (which in no way guarantees sweetness,) the seed should be small. Whenever anyone comments on lychee, they always include, “…and some small da seed!” or “but beeg da seed!” This summer my cousin showed up with a box of lychee along with the warning not to give any to children because the seed was so small they might swallow it. OK! I said as I started gobbling them down, to find that indeed she was right, as these seeds were the size of Ni`ihau shells. And while the lychee was small, it was also very sweet…so Jackpot! (but sorry kids, this box of lychee is only for the grown ups.)
According to In Gardens of Hawaii by Marie C. Neal (Bishop Museum Press, 1965) lychee (or litchi) was brought to Hawai`i from southern China in 1873. Ha kip and kwai mi are some of the varieties in the Islands and “In Hawaii, a good tree bears 200 or more pounds of fruit… some beginning when 5 years old, some not in 20 years.” (p.535) And that’s why those trees are so big.
Fresh lychee can now be bought in Asian markets around Seattle but in earlier days, only a summer run to Vancouver, B.C. would guarantee finding it in Chinatown up there. On my return into Washington the first time I went to Canada many years ago, the border guard asked if I had purchased any food products and I cheerfully answered: Only the lychee! Auwe he whisked me off to the side and confiscated my stash of the prized fruit! So be warned to eat it all before crossing back into the U.S., which isn’t a problem as long as you don’t buy 10 pounds.
Lychee is eaten mostly fresh and I’m wondering if it’s because it usually doesn’t stay around long enough to force bakers to figure out a way to use it up. I scoured cookbooks, asked friends and relatives in Hilo and wracked my brain, but could not find any recipe for lychee bread or cake or pie. Friends could only come up with Almond Float as a way they might use lychee in a dessert dish. And in an old hapa-haole cookbook, I saw something for “stuffed” lychee which I’ve included below. So if you know of any other recipes that call for fresh or even canned lychee, send them my way!
2 Tablespoons gelatin
Combine gelatin and water and stir until dissolved. Add sugar to hot milk and bring to a boil. Add into gelatin mix and stir well. Add in almond extract. Pour into an 8-inch square pan and chill until firm. Cut into small squares. Into a bowl (or individual small bowls) put the gelatin squares and spoon over the fruit mixture.
1 bunch or can whole lychee
Drain or dry lychee and remove seed. Mix cream cheese. Fill cavity of lychee with a small portion of cream cheese. Insert nut and fill again with cheese.
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