There's something faintly romantic about lychees. Beautiful and exotic, the dimpled crimson fruit evoke a distinctly Chinese image and always remind me of Maggie Cheung in her red cheongsam in Wong Kar-Wai's movie In the Mood for Love.
Peeling away the lychee's thin brittle "shell" reveals the smooth, white, translucent flesh, which is sweet, but has a delicate flavour. Silky yet firm, a perfectly ripe lychee bursts with juice under the tooth. I was tempted recently by a box of bright red lychees at the counter of an Asian grocer. I put them in a blue ceramic bowl to serve after dinner simply chilled in their shells - to eat them just as they are is a sensual pleasure. They were exquisitely perfumed and deeply refreshing.
Lychees originated in south-east China and grow in tropical and subtropical regions on large evergreen trees with long, lush green leaves. Here in Australia they grow from Far North Queensland down to northern New South Wales. Fortunately for us, this extensive growing region gives us a particularly long season, from November through to early April. And production here is expanding. A large number of trees have been planted, mostly in the northern Queensland sugarcane regions, where farmers are diversifying into other crops.
When lychees ripen, they turn bright red or red-pink. Their brilliant colour quickly fades after harvesting and they go brown within a few days, meaning the colour of the skin is a good indicator of freshness. They should be kept chilled, partly because they're particularly delicious when cold, but mostly because they quickly deteriorate at room temperature. They last up to a week in a plastic bag in the fridge.
Memories of tinned lychees served with vanilla ice-cream at your local Chinese restaurant may have turned you off the fruit for good. Alas, the enticing perfume and beautiful crunch of lychees is all but lost when they're canned, and the feel of lychees in the mouth is largely what it's all about. While I love the sweetness and fragrance of lychees, it's their exquisite silky texture I find most enjoyable. Pair them with something simple such as ice-cream (ideally, for me, my freshly made coconut ice-cream) to really appreciate them at their finest.
As splendid as they are in desserts, there are plenty of savoury uses for lychees, too, playing off the sweetness and that wonderful firm yet giving texture. It's not uncommon to see the fruit paired with duck or pork in South East Asian cuisine. In Thailand, for example, lychees appear in red duck curries, often in tandem with pineapple. Added just before serving, they make a refreshing contrast to the earthiness and heat of the dish.
Lychees also work very well with meats that have been roasted, sweetened and spiced or caramelised, such as Cantonese-style roast duck or char siu pork. Chef Geoff Lindsay serves pork spare ribs with a lychee and mint salad at his Melbourne restaurant, Dandelion. I like to make a simple salad of char siu pork with lychees, mint, Thai basil, bean sprouts and a nam prik dressing. I can also vouch for the uplifting powers of a salsa of finely diced mango, lychee and coriander teamed with grilled sambal prawns.
It might sound a bit girlie, but I also rather like lychees in cocktails. I love sitting up at the bar at Longrain with a Ping Pong, one of that fine establishment's signature drinks. It goes something like this: lychees with lime juice, passionfruit, lychee liqueur, lemon-infused vodka and ice. Cooling and delicious.
Working with tropical or Asian flavours such as mint, lime, coconut, mango, pineapple, chilli or star anise, it's hard to go wrong. At Cutler & Co., chef Andrew McConnell expands on this idea with a gorgeous dessert of fresh lychees, coconut tapioca with a hint of ras el hanout spice, coconut sorbet, aloe vera, and fresh ginger granita.
Miraculously, I've got a few lychees left over from my purchase earlier in the week. I'm thinking that tonight they'll make a fine dessert with almond milk custard, a star anise syrup and caramelised pineapple. If they last that long.