Basket of lychees

Satisfy your inner child and go grab some alligator strawberries, or if you’re a little older at heart lychees, or if you’re a little more scientific at heart Litchi chinensis. These bright little fruits are a sweet treat alone, and a wonderfully complex ingredient to make use of with others.

Their pinkish-red durable peel hides scotch-white juicy flesh, which itself surrounds a waxy long brown pit. Lychee is noted for not only its taste and versatility, but for its aesthetic; the ruby fruit is certainly memorable with its textured covering. According to American botanist Walter T. Swingle, the very first published work documenting the different varieties of lychee dates back over some 1,200 years to 11th-century China (via The Lychee Biotechnology).

Spelled lychee, litchi, or lichi, this fruit has found its way all around the world, featuring in both savory and sweet dishes; and as its popularity grows, so, too, do the amount of questions about it. So let’s dig a little deeper and uncover what we can of these little red rubies.

Origins and history of lychee cultivation

Lychee tree and lychee bunches

Originating in Southeast Asia, and now with farms all around subtropical Asia, Africa, and the Americas, lychee has grown from a local delicacy into an internationally commodified cash crop. According to Britannica, lychee holds local importance to many regions in and around Asia, particularly certain parts of India and China. Cantonese culture is particularly noted for making use of lychee since ancient times in food, drink, and even some types of medicine.

Notably and most widely grown in China and India, the earliest records of lychee cultivation dates back to the 11th century in the southern regions of China, Malaysia, and the northern regions of Vietnam. Some historians believe unofficial records refer to lychee as far back as 2,000 years ago, to the Han Dynasty, as noted in Macao Magazine.

The first recorded appearance of lychee in the western world was through trade routes in Jamaica in 1775 (via Britannica), and the first instance of successful lychee cultivation in the U.S. occurred in the early 1900s in Florida, per the website ThingsAsian, where the fruit has become an important commercial crop.

The many kinds of lychee

Lychee fruit on pink background

Lychee thrives in environments near the equator and tastes as sweet as the papayas, passion fruit, and mangoes with which it shares its climate and subtropical designation. Although the trees grow wild in southern parts of Asia, there are other climates in which lychee cultivation is favorable and has been successful. Beyond the aforementioned state of Florida, lychee growers have seen success in the Mediterranean, South Africa, and Hawaii, according to Britannica — albeit to a lesser extent than those in China and India.

There is also quite a variety of lychee strains; each with their own unique characteristics, but all still sweet and delicious. Pine Island Nursery details some of the more popular varieties of lychee, some with more flesh and smaller pits, some significantly larger, some with more concentrated flavors, and some better suited for cooking and others for drinking. Assuming you are in a region with suitable conditions, or your thumb is green enough, you can even purchase lychee trees to plant and grow lychees yourself.

How to buy lychees

Lychees in a grid pattern

In the western world lychee can be found in many Asian markets: red, ripe, and ready for peeling. The strains available to you may depend on where you live and where your local supplier gets their lychees, but again, there shouldn’t be too much variation and all lychees make for wonderful snacks and ingredients. Fresh lychees may come as just the fruits or still attached to branches and in bunches.

Just as with most other fruits lychees should be left out to ripen and refrigerated to keep fresh. Per Pantry Tips, lychees left at room temperature will expire after two to three days, but in the fridge, they can last up to a week (to be safe, five days). You can also freeze lychee fruit, and this, according to the website, will preserve them for six months.

Generally there is no consensus on what temperature to eat your lychees, so whether enjoying them fresh and frosty out of the fridge or slow and sweet at room temperature just make sure to really relish them. A grocery bag full of them in the fridge or a bowl of them left out always seems to vanish quickly.

Buying canned or dried lychee is also a great alternative to buying them fresh as they can be used as different ingredients that take a little less preparation, have some different flavor profiles, and have a much longer shelf life.

Lychee fruit applications

Bees on lychees

Once you’ve bought a batch of lychees, to get to the delectably sweet flesh, begin to peel the hard bumpy skin at the base of the fruit as if it were a little spiky red clementine. If the fruit is ripe, the skin should peel without too much trouble. Once you’re left with the white pod of fruit cut down the base of the fruit lengthwise and remove the pit. If you’re feeling particularly impatient you can just pop it into your mouth and spit out the pit when you’re done like a cherry; although if you’re preparing the lychee for a dessert or drink, this pop-and-go method is not recommended.

Lychee has been described by The Spruce Eats as tasting like something between a strawberry and a watermelon with some delicate floral notes. Its consistency is somewhat between that of a dense grape and a ripe plum. Its very juicy flesh and pleasantly sweet flavors are a favorite as dessert and fruit salad toppings and many Asian recipes will feature lychee as a natural sweetener.

Drinks are, however, where this fruit has truly come to shine. From little pieces of lychee found in teas and smoothies, to lychee jelly’s rise to rival boba as the reigning drink topping, to boiled and reduced lychee simply syrup for cocktails, this little fruit can be found everywhere and for the tastiest of reasons.

Nutritional benefits of lychee

Lychees bunches

The lychee fruit (or pulp) may be delicious but the seeds or pits should not be consumed, as they contain certain chemical compounds that in large doses and in unhealthy bodies can be damaging. A 2014 study, published in the peer-reviewed journal The Lancet, linked large amounts of lychee consumption in malnourished children in India and Vietnam with encephalopathy, resulting in symptoms like seizures and loss in some brain functions. It is worth noting that these were niche cases in malnourished children and normal lychee consumption in healthy children and adults is completely safe.

Nutritionally, lychees actually provide many of the same health benefits as fruits such as strawberries and blueberries. According to Harvard Health, daily servings of fruits and vegetables have been found to drastically reduce risks of death from various health issues, meaning eating lychee is not only a tasty treat but could prove a lifesaving survival strategy. WebMD, meanwhile, states that lychees are high in antioxidants and vitamin C — essential nutrients for a healthy body; so no matter who you are at heart, grabbing some little alligator strawberries will help it pump a little cleaner.