Most Americans know litchi nuts only as syrupy canned fruit or as raisinlike dried fruit. But at this time of year, fans of fresh litchi nuts look for clusters of the rosy Ping-Pong-ball-size fruit, traditionally sold attached to the stems.
To eat a litchi nut, pull away the thin, slightly leathery and spiky skin. The texture and flavor of the translucent white flesh is reminiscent of a muscat grape."Nothing beats the perfumed lusciousness of a litchi right off the tree," said Noble Hendrix, a former surgeon who fell in love with litchi nuts and is now a leading grower of the fruit, in Homestead, Fla. "But we provide the next best thing by picking in the morning and flying the fruit to New York that afternoon, so it's on sale the next day."
Florida litchi nuts arrived in stores in May and will be available through the end of the month. Florida growers raise two main varieties: the early season Mauritius has skin tinged with green and is crisper and less sweet than the late-season Brewster, which is a brilliant, almost iridescent purplish-red.
Robert Knight, a litchi expert at the University of Florida at Homestead, rates the Mauritius a 4 and the Brewster a 6 or 7 on a scale of 1 to 10, but the Mauritius has predominated in recent years because it produces more fruit.
The best litchis, Knight said, grow in Guangdong and Fujian Provinces in southern China, the fruit's homeland. For centuries, landowners vied in procuring the finest varieties, including the "glutinous rice dumpling," famous for its tiny "chicken tongue" seeds, and the fabulously fragrant and expensive "hanging green," as well as the "rhinoceros horn" and the "imperial concubine's laugh."
Experts usually say LIE-chee rather than LEE-chee, favoring the Cantonese pronunciation over the Mandarin one. "Lychee" is also a common variant spelling, and "litchi nut" often refers to the dried version of the fruit commonly sold in Chinese groceries, alongside tea soaked in litchi juice, honey from litchi blossoms and litchi-flavored soda.
In the United States, demand for fresh litchi nuts exceeds supply, but Agriculture Department regulations have restricted imports for fear of foreign fruit flies. Lured by retail prices of $3 to $8 a pound, smugglers bring in Asian litchi nuts through Canada, said Peter Grosser, who supervises imports at the Agriculture Department's Plant Protection and Quarantine division. Imported litchi nuts are permitted in Canada without restrictions because tropical pests do not survive the cold.
To counter this furtive trade, the Agriculture Department recently legalized the importation of fresh litchi nuts from China, Taiwan and India, the world's largest producers. This fruit however, must undergo about two weeks of cold treatment to kill insects, leaving the shells brown and brittle and sometimes causing the flavor to be off.
"The cold is crucial but cruel for the litchis," said James Lee, a distributor of Asian produce in Monterey Park, Calif.
The season for Asian imports runs from early May to July. Then, Mexican fruit arrives, followed in August and September by Israeli litchi nuts, which are treated with sulfites to preserve color. California has only a few small groves, as does Hawaii.