Walk into any Asian market and you're sure to see an ingredient or two that you don't recognize. Lately however, once obscure Asian ingredients have started to appear in mainstream markets as well. For example, just a year or two ago, if I wanted to buy lychees I'd have to go to Chinatown to get them, but yesterday, I spotted a heap of them, perfectly ripe and begging to come home with me, at my local market.
Lychees, a small, tree-borne fruit, have their origins in China, but are now also grown in many parts of east Asia, South America and the U.S. Lychees are roughly the size of a very large grape and have an inedible, bumpy, pinkish-red skin that easily peels away to reveal a translucent, fragrant flesh.
They have a distinctive, perfumed sweet, flavor reminiscent of muscat grapes and tropical fruit and lend themselves particularly well to desserts and beverages. They are also available canned and frozen, but much like canned or frozen peaches, they are substantially better when eaten fresh. They're a bit labor intensive to prepare, as they have to be peeled and pitted and are small and have a low yield, but once you get a hint of their heady aroma and delightful flavor, you'll realize that it's worth the effort to eat them fresh.
My favorite way to eat lychees is out of hand, peeling them and popping them in my mouth as I go. I have also had great success using them in sorbets and granitas, cocktails, and as a garnish for seared foie gras. I have also seen some delicious looking lychee recipes for panna cotta, cupcakes, and caramelized lychees served over ice cream.
The next time you come upon some lychees, pick a few up and give them a try. You’re sure to be pleasantly surprised.