Dear Readers, I first ate lychees in a Chinese restaurant on Stratford Broadway in East London, when I was about eight years old. We’d gone there as a treat, just my Mum, my brother and I. We loved the egg-fried rice and the sweet and sour prawn balls, but I was very unsure about the lychees, which came straight out of a tin. I think it was their texture that put me off – they were chewier than a sweet thing had any right to be, and there was something about them that reminded me of eyeballs. I shifted my allegiance to mangoes on the tropical fruit front, and that was it, for many, many years.
Fast forward to about ten years ago. I was in Madagascar. Every single person on my tour, including the guide, was down with what is euphemistically called ‘an upset stomach’. For the longest time, I couldn’t bear to eat anything, which is generally nature’s way of asking you to give your guts a rest so that your ‘good’ stomach bacteria can wage war. When I was finally well enough to eat again, the guide handed me a bag of fresh lychees that he’d bought in the market. I had honestly never tasted anything so fragrant, so sweet and so delicious.
Of course, those lychees were fresh off the tree, but this week I treated myself to some from our local greengrocer. When I’ve finished this post I intend to go and get stuck in. Until now my main lychee ‘fix’ has come from a lychee martini quaffed once a year at some posh hotel bar, but as that doesn’t seem likely to happen in the near future, I shall substitute the real thing.
What the hell are they, though, these prickly little fruits?
Lychees come originally from south-eastern China, and are the only member of the genus Litchi – their full name is Litchi chinensis. Such was their popularity with Yang Gufei, the favourite concubine of an Emperor during the Han Dynasty, that they were harvested in from the wild trees in Guangdong and taken to the palace by special horse courier – one lychee variety retains the name ‘imperial concubine’s smile’. They have been cultivated in China since at least the 9th century, and many techniques were used to produce the biggest, sweetest fruits. One was to ‘girdle’ the tree (take off a ring of bark just above the roots) – this meant that the sugars produced could only be stored in the fruit. It was (and is) apparently done to a tree that didn’t bear fruit or had a poor crop in the previous year, and has to be done carefully so that the sapwood isn’t damaged and it doesn’t kill the tree. I am struggling a bit to imagine how this works, but then my knowledge of forestry is on the scanty side.
Lychees are part of the soapberry family (Sapindaceae) which includes plants such as the horse chestnut, the maple and that Caribbean favourite, the ackee. Many of them contain saponins, which are mildly toxic and have soap-like qualities. However, both lychee and ackee fruit also contain unusual amino acids that can cause hypoglycaemia and encephalopathy in children. This has been known for a long time in the Caribbean, and the ackee-related disease is known as Jamaican Vomiting Sickness – in these islands, and in Africa, people are careful about not eating unripe fruit where the concentrations of these chemicals are highest, and have a much better understanding of how to prepare the fruit. However, India has recently become the largest producer of lychees outside of China, and undernourished children who come across fallen, damaged or unripe fruit are most at risk. If the disease is caught early enough it can be treated, but for the longest time outbreaks have been blamed on everything from pesticides to a new neotropical virus. Doctors are keen to work with producers to find the varieties, soils and cultivation methods that result in the plant containing less of the dangerous chemicals. A portion of lychees also contains 88% of an adult’s daily requirement for Vitamin C, so it’s clear that there are benefits to be had.
So, having got some lychees, what do you do with them? My advice, especially if you’re in a country that grows its own, is to eat them as they come (though don’t overindulge if you’re prone to blood sugar problems). As always, though, the internet has some suggestions. Here, for example, is a link to lycheesonline, a veritable cornucopia of lychee recipes (including cocktails). Lychee custard tart, anyone? If you can only get the tinned fruit (and let’s face it, that’s how they come for most of us), here is a recipe for coconut pudding with lychee and mango salad that would slip down very nicely.
Or maybe a frozen lychee cheesecake?
Historically, lychees have been used medicinally to treat complaints of the stomach and lungs. However, whenever I research the medical uses of plants of all kinds, I come across a whole mire of misinformation. One site says that the skins of lychees can be used to treat smallpox. Another recommends that it be used to treat diabetes (interesting when we consider the fruit’s hypoglycaemic effects). So, as always, I would be extremely careful when using the internet for treatments. I do believe that plants can help us, but I think there is a lot of duplicated and unhelpful, and sometimes even dangerous stuff out there. I know that I don’t have to tell you lovely people to be careful, but our society as a whole seems to have people who disbelieve everything in the mainstream media while believing whatever nonsense someone has posted on a Facebook page.
But, as usual, I digress.
Of course, there is something strange about eating lychees (in this case, from South Africa) while fog swirls around the streets of East Finchley and I’m swathed in the biggest scarf that I own. I am sure that, growing up, I would never have seen a fresh lychee. Tangerines were a Christmas treat, not something that was available all year round. Our tiny pleasures have a global impact, and our international, out-of-season habits have a price. In years to come, will eating strawberries from Chile in December, or asparagus from Peru, be as socially distasteful as, say, smoking in a restaurant or driving while drunk? I was moved by this thoughtful poem by Adrienne Su, who makes the direct comparison between the Emperor’s concubine and our brimming supermarkets. What do you think?