If you’re an adventurous food person like I am, then we probably have one thing in common: when we learn about a food that we’ve never tried, we have to try it. That’s exactly how I felt when I first learned about lychee, a tropical fruit from Southern China that has a hard, bumpy outer shell that holds a sweet, juicy, jelly-like fruit inside. Weird, I know. But I was intrigued.
Just the description alone was enough to spark my food curiosity and I knew right then and there that I had to make it my mission to hunt down a bag of lychees and try them. But then, on the day that I finally found lychee, I also found two other fruits that I’d never seen before: longan and rambutan.
Lychee, longan, and rambutan are all close relatives of each other, they’re all summer fruit, and if you’ve never tried them, then they all need to be added to your must-try list. Here’s a little more about each fruit:
Lychee is a tropical, tree-borne fruit that’s a member of the soapberry family. It is native to Southern China, but today, it’s cultivated throughout Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Lychee trees are evergreen, can grow up to 100 feet tall, and bear edible fruits. The amount of fruit a lychee tree will bear depends on its age — young trees can produce up to 500 fruits, but older trees may produce as many as 5,000 fruits. Harvest season for lychee fruit spans between May and June, so you will often find lychee on the streets of Chinatown during the summer. The best part is, most fruit carts selling lychee charge by either the pound or per fruit, so if you’re not sure that you’ll like lychee, you can buy a single fruit to try before you commit.
Lychee fruits have hard, bumpy, red-orange skin that is inedible but easily peeled away. Inside, each fruit has soft, white flesh with a jelly-like texture that’s similar to an unpeeled grape and a large, inedible seed. The flesh of the lychee fruit is very juicy and slightly fragrant with a flavor that can be described as being similar to red grapes. When selecting lychee, choose the reddest fruits you can find. Luckily, lychee also keeps very well when stored in the refrigerator (the skin will turn brown, but the flavor will remain unaffected), so you can purchase a large bag and keep it for several weeks without having to worry about it going bad.
In terms of nutrition, lychee is a great source of vitamin C — one serving (3.5 ounces of raw fruit) provides 119 percent of your daily recommended intake! It’s also a good source of vitamin B6, potassium, and dietary fiber. However, it’s best to consume lychee in moderation. According to traditional Chinese medicine, lychee is a “hot” fruit, and consuming too much in one sitting is said to lead to acne outbreaks, sore throat, and other symptoms. Some studies have shown that eating too many lychees in a short period may cause hypoglycemia or lower your blood pressure to extreme levels. Always remember to enjoy lychees in moderation!
Lychees are great on their own, but if you pick up a big bag, you can try making this refreshing Lychee Sorbet. Or, you can use them to top your tropical smoothie bowl. If you’re of the legal drinking age, they also make for a refreshing, fruity take on a classic martini. If you can’t find fresh lychees near you, then you can buy canned lychee online, like this Aroy-D Lychee in Syrup. A pack of three 20-ounce cans costs about $18.
Like lychee, longan is a tropical fruit native to Southeast Asia that’s a member of the soapberry family. Longan is smaller than lychee, about the size of an olive, with smooth, hard, light tan skin that must be peeled away before you eat the fruit. In Cantonese, longan is called lùhng-ngáahn, which means “dragon’s eye.” When you crack open the fruit (and as you can see in the photo above), you’ll understand how they got that name. Just like with lychee, the seed of the longan fruit is inedible. In terms of flavor and texture, lychee and longan are very comparable, but longan has been described as being jelly-like and more tart. You’re most likely to find Longan Chinatown or Asian markets throughout the summer. Store longan in the refrigerator to help them keep longer.
Longan is a good source of vitamin C, with 1/2 a cup providing 80 percent of your daily recommended intake. They are also a decent source of potassium and phenolic acid, an antioxidant known to have antifungal, antiviral, and antibacterial properties. In traditional Chinese medicine, longan has been used to improve skin, heart health, and to promote calmness.
A common way of consuming longan in traditional Chinese medicine is to brew it with jujubes (red dates) and Chinese rock sugar, but the fruits also make a great snack. If you can’t find fresh longan near you, try these Dragon Herbs Longan Fruits. A 6-ounce bag costs about $20.
Rambutan is the largest of the three, with each fruit being about the size of a golf ball. Like lychee and longan, it’s a tree-borne tropical fruit native to Southeast Asia, particularly the Malay-Indonesia region. It has the most interesting appearance: the skin of the rambutan fruit is bright red and leathery with pliable spines with bright green tips — if Koosh balls were a fruit, they would look like rambutan. Fun fact: the name rambutan comes from a word in Malay-Indonesian languages that means “hairs.” You get three guesses as to why that is. Rambutan can be found in Chinatown or Asian markets in the summer and should be refrigerated after purchase. They tend to be pricier than lychees and longan but check out the fruit carts in the area. Usually, you can buy a single rambutan for less than a dollar.
Unlike the jelly-like texture of lychee and longan, rambutan has a soft, creamy flesh with slightly floral, acidic flavors. The seeds should be discarded, as they are toxic. A 100-gram serving of rambutan will provide you with 40 percent of your recommended daily value of vitamin C. They are also a decent source of iron and phosphorous.
Rambutan are great for snacking on their own, but for a healthy, summery treat, peel the fruit, remove the seed, and store them in an airtight container in the freezer. It’s like sorbet, without all the work!
Have you tried any of these fruits? Tell us about your experience in the comments!
Now that you know about all three of these weird and wonderful fruits, I’m sure you’re already planning your next trip to Chinatown so you can try them for yourself. While they’re delicious on their own, they also make for wonderfully refreshing summer desserts. That’s where this delicious, low-sugar Lychee Sorbet by Daphne Goh, author of Healthy Gluten-Free Asian comes in. Since lychees, longan, and rambutan are so similar in taste and texture, you can apply the same, simple sorbet-making steps to all three fruits! Here’s how to do it.
To start, you’ll need 19 ounces of fresh lychees, longan, or rambutan that have been peeled and de-seeded. You’ll also need 2 tablespoons of agave syrup, maple syrup, or your liquid sweetener of choice. If you want, you can also pick up some fresh mint as a garnish. This recipe also gives the option of making sorbet with or without an ice cream maker. If you have an ice cream maker, be sure to chill the base in the freezer overnight.
In a blender, combine the peeled and de-seeded fruit and blend until you get a smooth purée. For the next step, pour the blended fruit into your ice cream maker and churn according to the instructions in the manual. If you don’t have an ice cream maker, pour the purée into a freezer-safe container with a tight-fitting lid and freeze for 8 hours or overnight. And that’s it! Easy, right?
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