Thursday, February 09, 2006

Prickly fruits of winter

Although apparently they grow in California, I had never had a fresh litchi nut before the winter of 2004, my first winter in France. I had eaten them canned quite often in my childhood, served for dessert in a bowl at the Dragon Palace Chinese Restaurant in the mini-mall on Santa Monica Boulevard just up the street from where I grew up. During my first winter in France, I was quite surprised to see them at practically every greengrocer I passed starting from mid-January. They looked quite scary and dangerous to me, and I couldn't imagine the sweet white fruit that lurked beneath their leathery spiked armor.

It was the eight year old girl I tutored who convinced me to try them. As we would walk home across the bridge to the sixteenth from the Ecole Bilingue in the fifteenth, she would often spontaneously exclaim how litchis, along with cherries and green grapes, were her FAVORITE fruit in the whole wide world. Well, if an eight year old wasn't afraid of them, I figured I shouldn't be either. She showed me how to bite off the top part of the skin, just below where the stem would be and just enough to make a little dent, then peel off the skin as though it were a little hat, and then pinch the bottom part of the skin so as to cleanly pop the fruit into your mouth. I've looked forward to them every February since then.

In my two years of fresh litchi eating, I have learned through trial and error which litchis are probably the best by looking at them. In my experience, I have found the best litchis will be quite plump and fat, almost heart-shaped, proud-looking, not wimpy-looking. They should not be too hard, but not too soft either. They should give a little when you squeeze them, but then defiantly puff themselves back out when you release them. I look for ones that are light brown in color, but have pleasing pink blush swept across them. However, they should not be too pretty and pink, as I have found this can mean they are overly ripe. If you are lucky and have picked a perfect litchi, the skin will break with a clean "pop!" when you bite into it, and then a little explosion of sweet juice will trickle out, not a whole lot, but just enough. The fruit inside should be pure white, not brown at all. If you are really lucky, the brown nut-like seed inside will be fat, smooth and glossy (don't eat it, it is slightly poisonous) and the white meat will literally slide off of it in a very pleasing manner. However, some seeds end up being a bit bent or gnarled, but I have found this normally doesn't affect the taste of the fruit itself, it is just that is quite pleasant to slide the fruit off a glossy smooth seed instead.

I was so surprised to learn how sweet they are fresh, that it surprises me now that they would sell them canned in syrup...


Post a Comment

<< Home