The fresh lychee crossed my path twice recently. My first encounter with the beautiful red, spiky walnut-sized fruit was in Los Angeles.
With only an inkling of what lay beneath the brittle skin, I plunked it into a bag with some other strange, foreign fruits I found in California and brought it back home to Massachusetts.
While the fresh lychee (or litchi) lingered in my refrigerator, I had a second encounter. This time I was seduced by the pearl-like fruit that hid beneath the rough-skinned exterior.
A recent dinner featured Asian influences on French cuisine at Boston's Maison Robert. For dessert they served a Ginger Crme Caramel with Fresh Lychees.
It was a classic caramel, topped with halves of the opalescent, creamy fruit that resembled a peeled grape.
Caramelized strands of ginger lay casually over the lychees, and the succulent fruit contrasting nicely with the crunch and creme that surrounded it, yielding musky-tasting little mouthfuls, a lovely ending to a well-planned meal.
In researching ways to approach the unshelled fruit that remained, still fresh, in my refrigerator, I learned much about the lychee's "roots" and its long-honored history.
In 200 BC, the Chinese Emperor Kao Tsu arranged for fresh lychees at his table after tasting the dried version, and historically, this is quoted as the lychee's public debut.
The lychee also has the distinction of being the subject of the first published work on fruit, written by Chinese scholar Ts'si Hsiang in 1059.
In China, the lychee is still the most cherished of fruits.
Canned lychees are the version most Americans are familiar with, often served as a dessert in Chinese restaurants. And like many canned items, they are a sorry comparison to their fresh counterpart.
When dried, the fruit is known as the lychee nut.
In its dried state, the bumpy red skin turns brown, and must be peeled away before eating. Inside is a dark amber, prune-colored shrunken fruit with a flavor like a smoky-tasting raisin.
The flavor of fresh lychees has been described as nutty, pear-like, similar to grapes, and even a bit like coconut. Some people object to its texture, finding it too "fleshy." But it is the fresh lychee that is the favorite fruit of the Cantonese, referred to in their literature as a "titillating tidbit of nature."
The lychee needs very specific climactic conditions to grow. The tree originated in Asia, now is grown in Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Asia, South Africa, the West Indies, Mexico, Israel, and the warm climates of the United States.
It grows best in subtropical climates with hot summers, temperate winters, high humidity, and adequate rainfall. The fruit has a very short season - only a month or two during the summer.
The lychee has a delicate, sweet, slightly acidic flavor and a texture that is firm to gelatinous.
Considered the "most regal of all fruit desserts," it mixes well with citrus and ginger, and the lychee combines beautifully with other tropical fruits for a sweet delight.
The lychee also combines well with more savory flavors, and sits well in main dishes with garlic and hot peppers accenting its taste.
But I had but a single fruit I'd been waiting for, a final close encounter. After peeling it and removing the inedible seed, I popped it in my mouth, and felt a part of history as I savored the mouthful.
GINGER CREME CARAMEL WITH FRESH LYCHEES
The fresh lychee season is short (usually July and August). If they are not available so you may have to resort to canned. Or, you may choose another fresh fruit, such as strawberries, in place of them. The following recipe is from Jacky Robert, chef at Maison Robert in Boston.
6 ounces fresh ginger, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1-1/2 cups sugar
2 cups water
2 large eggs
5 egg yolks
2 cups milk
2/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup water
8 fresh lychees
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Chop the ginger in the food processor until very fine.
Combine the ginger with 1-1/2-cups sugar and 2 cups water in a heavy saucepan and simmer for 20 minutes.
Strain the syrup through a fine sieve into a medium bowl, reserving about 2 tablespoons of the now-candied ginger for garnish; discard the rest.
Reserve the syrup and allow to cool.
In a small bowl, beat together whole eggs and egg yolks. Add the ginger syrup and stir well to combine.
In a saucepan, bring the milk to a boil, then pour into the egg/ginger mixture. Mix well, set aside.
To make the caramel, combine 2/3 cup of sugar and 1/3 cup water in a heavy saucepan or skillet and cook over medium-high heat, without stirring until sugar begins to melt. Shake pan occasionally. Reduce heat to low then cook while stirring the mixture with a wooden spoon until sugar mixture is golden brown.
Immediately pour the caramelized sugar evenly in a shallow 9-by-9-inch ceramic dish. Pour the custard over the caramel and place the dish in a larger baking pan half-filled with hot water.
Bake for 40 minutes. Remove from oven, allow to cool, and refrigerate for at least two hours.
Turn out the custard on a serving dish.
Remove the skins and seeds of the lychees, cut in half and arrange them on top of the caramel custard.
Take pinches of the candied ginger and garnish the top of the caramel.