Rough and prickly on the outside, soft and sweet on the inside; larger than an olive but smaller than an apricot. In its natural form, the lychee does not look like a fruit, but more like a weapon. It bears a strong resemblance to the head of a mace ball, though a tad less menacing, softened by its friendly hue. The sweet, cream-colored flesh of the fruit is encased in a thick red-orange skin studded with small, spiky protrusions. Once the skin is punctured, it slides right off to reveal the milky-white meat. As such, it is ready to be eaten, though one must beware of the glossy brown pit tucked in the center of the lychee flesh: it is poisonous. How true it is that the things you love can hurt you the most. Though toxic when eaten, when planted the seed can beget thousands more lychees.
My earliest encounters with the fruit happened sporadically, mostly during Passover growing up, when my mother would buy dozens of cartons of Ceres lychee juice (they spell it “litchi” on their packaging, an acceptable transliteration of the original Chinese). The juice was sweet but subtle, and paired well with matzah-brei in the mornings. Years later, I was at a frozen yogurt place that offered lychees as one of the several topping choices. I hadn’t yet tasted one in its natural form, but fondly recalled the taste of Ceres juice, and decidedly topped my froyo with some of the peeled and pitted lychee balls—easily one of the best decisions I’ve made. The sweet, juicy flesh perfectly complemented my tart and icy froyo, opening me up to a whole new world of lychee possibilities.
To the average American, the fruit is unusual, even elusive—perhaps because its origins trace back to the Far East. It grows wild on Litchi Chinensis trees in China, Cambodia, and North Vietnam, and has been cultivated for consumption in those areas since as early as 2000 B.C. While the trees can grow in various climates, they will only produce fruit in a tropical or sub-tropical area—hence lychees’ prevalence and popularity in Southeast Asia. Continuing its legacy from the B.C. era, China remains the world’s primary producer of lychees, a fact which is interwoven not just into its agricultural identity but its cultural one as well: Hong Kong is sometimes referred to as “The Big Lychee,” a play on New York City’s iconic nickname, “The Big Apple.”
For as long as they’ve been eaten, lychees have been a beloved fruit. During the Song Dynasty in China, which lasted from 960 to 1279 A.D., the demand for fresh lychees was so great that the imperial courts would have special speed couriers deliver the fruits from Canton in the north so the nobility could enjoy the lychees almost immediately after the fruits were plucked off the trees. Emperor Wu-ti, who ruled in 100 B.C., transplanted hundreds of lychee trees from their native South China to his capital city in modern-day Sian. There he created a palace, which he named “Exalted Lychee Palace,” a place where he could lounge and luxuriate while devouring countless lychees.
Chinese devotion to the lychee extended beyond the imperial courts and palaces, spanning social class—from the farmer to the emperor—and across centuries. Ancient Chinese scholars wrote whole monographs on the subject, including Ts’ai Hsiang and Sung Ta-mo, both of whom authored texts entitled “Treatise on Lychees,” published seven hundred years apart. In his version, Sung Ta-mo praises the fruit, beginning his paper by saying: “The lychee is the genius, the Buddha of the fruits; there is nothing to be compared to it.” He goes on to recount eating one thousand lychees a day during their ripe season followed by listing various circumstances which can enhance or detract from one’s lychee-eating experience. The former list he titles “Unalloyed Bliss in Eating the Lychee” while the latter is called “Somber Happenings in Eating the Lychee.”
Sung Ta-mo also writes about the formation of a lychee-eating club, complete with an account of the club’s bylaws. “The club begins to meet when the huo shan (volcano) variety is entirely ripe and ceases to meet on the day when the sung lei (pinecone) variety comes forth,” reads the first bylaw. “Each day one member acts as director and procures three thousand fruits as an average, but if there are more, then the pleasure is greater.” Membership to the club requires more than simply an affinity for lychee eating, as at the end of each meeting, every member must present a poem to the group. If he does not, “he is punished by having three thousand fruits taken from him.” It is quite clear from such texts: lychee eating is a sacred experience, and made all the more enjoyable when surrounded by poetry and fellow lychee lovers.
I’ve never eaten a thousand lychees in day, and probably won’t eat that many over the course of my life. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to try. And as I do, I’ll be sure to do it in the company of friends and facing flowing water, if Sung Ta-mo has anything to say about it.