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Strange fruit

(article, Melanie Mesaros)

According to People magazine's September style special, some of the hottest fragrances right now are being made from the lychee fruit.

[%image lychee float=left credit="Photo: iStockphoto/YinYang" caption="The lychee . . ."]

The what? Well, the lychee (also spelled litchi, and pronounced either "lee-chee" or "lye-chee") is a subtropical fruit native to China; it's a basic fruit in many Asian cuisines. Today it's also grown in South Florida, Hawaii, and California.

A lychee is about the size of a Ping-Pong ball. The reddish-brown outer skin is brittle and nubbly; once you peel it off, there's a soft, moist, translucent white fruit inside, surrounding a hard pit. The white flesh has the consistency of a grape, only sweeter, and is high in Vitamin C and potassium. And yes, it has a floral aroma reminiscent of perfume. 

In 1996, fruit expert David Karp wrote a paean to the lychee in the New York Times, calling it “addictively irresistible.” Asian lychees are imported into the U.S. in late spring and early summer and domestic U.S. production kicks in by June and July; the season winds down by fall.

There's considerable lore surrounding the lychee; Karp retells the legend of a lady-love of a T'ang Dynasty emperor, whose passion for fresh lychees was such that guards on fast horses were ordered to bring the fruits 600 miles to the palace. The lychee (or, more commonly, its close relative the longan) is often used in traditional Chinese medicine as well.  

[%image feed-image float=right credit="Photo: iStockphoto/davincidig" caption=". . . and the rambutan."]

Lychees are perfectly delicious eaten fresh, but there are plenty of recipes for them, from a dish featuring roasted scallops to lychee martinis. Many Asian markets carry fresh lychees as well as the canned variety, including the Uwajimaya chain. And Amazon sells frozen lychee purée; a 30-ounce jar is enough to make a gallon of sorbet or ice cream. 

Lychees also have a notable cousin: the rambutan, a similarly sized fruit with Medusa-like fronds spiking out of the shell. The rambutan isn't currently grown in the U.S., but many Asian markets import them; the rambutan season, which began in August, continues through October. 

As with lychees, many aficionados believe that rambutans are best eaten raw — all the better to capture their fleeting, perfumey essence.

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