The Many Lives of Lychee

This column is underwritten with generous support from United Noodles,  Minnesota’s largest Asian grocery store, awarded “Best International Grocery” by City Pages in 2014, 2016, and 2020. Chandra Walbolt is a professional chef with experience at several restaurants in the Twin Cities, and she currently serves as a manager at Union Hmong Kitchen. She will soon be the Executive Sous Chef at Yia Vang’s Vinaiin Northeast Minneapolis.

My mom fed me a lot of lychee as a child. It was one of my favorites (especially the canned-in-syrup kind). She would do anything to get me to eat fruit and vegetables, so knowing my love for lychees, she would call rambutans and longans lychee when she was peeling them for me. At the time I didn’t think much of it, even if the fruits looked completely different… I hardly noticed. but since the memory recently resurfaced in my brain I have been wanting to do this experiment. 

Comparing Lychee and Its Close Cousins, Rambutan and Longan

I went on a trip to United Noodles and I was thrilled to find that they were stocked on all three of these fresh soapberry fruits. I quickly grabbed a few handfuls of each and brought them to my friend’s house and yelled: “WE ARE GONNA DO AN EXPERIMENT.”

I peeled back the pithy skin of each fruit and carefully dissected the appearance side by side, and then the flavor.

First, I had the longan (right). For some reason I remember this being more sweet as a child… but maybe I only had it out of a can, preserved in syrup. It is a smaller fruit compared to the rest. Slightly sweet but a little flat.. But also ever so slightly yeasty in a weird way. The flesh appeared to be a little more clear next to the Rambutan and Lychee.

Rambutans (left) look so cool. They have a slightly thicker skin than the Longan and obviously has a lot more eye catching characteristics. They look spikey, but the wispy threads dancing off the fruit are soft and  you can just press right into them when peeling the skin off. The flesh is a glossy, cloudy white and the flavor was much sweeter than the Longan with a slight tartness. 

I knew there wasn’t going to be a chance that lychee wasn’t the best out of all three because the second I broke through the red, baby dragon-like skin, sweet syrupy juices bursted through the seams, drenching my hands with just one small fruit. The smell is rosey and so sweet. I could bathe in the scent. The flesh seemed to have way more water content than Longan and Rambutan. It was juicy and refreshing, perfect for the type of weather we have been having here in MN. Kind of like a grape, but sweeter and without any tartness. The texture between grape and these three fruits are pretty similar. 

Longan, Rambutan and Lychee all have large dark, inedible seeds and white-ish flesh. 

Lychee is harvested in clusters. The delicate fruits on the tree ripen at different rates, so harvesting has to happen every few days over a course of a couple weeks because Lychee does not continue to ripen after being picked. These trees can grow up to 40-50 feet tall and are native to SE Asia. The trees are grown commercially in India and SE China, mainly.

Lychee fruit is also extremely perishable, they can only last at room temp for 3-5 days at most. But they can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.

When Lychee is ripe, it can be bright red with bumpy skin. A brownish pink is also an acceptably ripe and delicious Lychee.

I haven’t made a lot of real cocktails before, at least nothing much more than some bitters and bourbon. So I was excited to try another experiment. I purchased canned Lychee in syrup (found in nearly all Asian markets) at United Noodle. And I made a palm sugar simple syrup with the fresh lychees. After my syrup cooled, I tasted them side by side. There’s always a difference between fresh and canned stuff, so that was expected. My syrup tasted sugary and coconutty. I imagine from the palm sugar, which will go PERFECT in this cocktail mix. The canned stuff was good still. There wasn’t any HFCS in it, just sugar and citric acid. But it definitely had a lot less character than the homemade stuff. 

So since I have never really made a drink like this, I was very excited. It was like chemistry class. And as always, adjust to your liking. But I found these measurements to be perfect for me.

Lychee Syrup

Around 10 fresh lychees, peeled and pitted
¼ cup palm sugar
¼ cup water

In a sauce pot, bring all ingredients to a boil and then simmer for 10 minutes and let cool for 10 minutes with the flesh still inside. Strain out the flesh. Makes about ½ cup syrup. Keep refrigerated. Best used within 5-7 days.

Lychee Lion

1.5oz lychee simple
4 large fresh mint leaves
Half a large lime (3-4 tbsp of fresh juice)
1 oz clear rum (optional)
Mint and lime for garnish (optional)

Bruise mint leaves in bottom of cup, add ice, cooled simple syrup, lime juice, and the optional rum. Stir until combined and then top off with coconut foam. Lightly creamy, sweet and refreshing. 

Coconut Foam

¼ cup full fat coconut milk ( this will have way more flavor) (found in a can, i use Chaokoh or Aroy-D brand) 
2 Tbsp cold water
2 tbsp lychee simple 

Blend or froth until creamy and fluffy.

Something I thought about after I drank these is how good some lychee jellys or fresh lychee fruit chunks would be in this. Maybe next time!