How to eat: Lychee and Longan (Updated AGAIN)

There are some other blog and industry posts about this, certainly, but I figured I’d better take photos and make notes about it from my own perspective of selecting, peeling and eating longan and lychee at my household.

Update Below: Notes on selection and spoilage.

Update even more Below: Pictures of spoilage (with notes).

(click all thumbnails for a larger copy of the picture)

Like many of you who may have heard of or encountered lychee (aka litchi, leechee, etc.) and longan (not aware of any other transliterations, but it literally means “dragon eye”), my early encounters with both were in cans (lychee, longan). The canned variety are VERY sweet and have hints of the flavor complexity with some dark notes, some honey-sweetness, but. I don’t know if you’ve ever encountered a fresh water chestnut to one in a can, but the difference is remarkable. Same goes for these fruit. If you see them fresh, do get them and try them out. They really are totally different from their canned counterparts. Also, the odor-based parts of the whole experience are generally completely lost in the can.

So what do they look like? They look like this in the store – either one may or may not be displayed and sold on the branch. Seems like longan are more likely sold on the branch these days, but since they’re related fruits, the branches and leaves will look similar. In this picture, the longan are on the left and the lychee are on the right:

When I was growing up, a lot of folks compared the longan and the lychee to really sweet grapes. It’s true that they’re about grape-size (maybe a little big for grapes), but they have a tougher skin that you have to peel off and instead of lots of small seeds, there’s one big (hard, inedible) seed in the center. More photos of that later. The reason I mention this now is that you want to plan for relatively fragile fruit for transportation. Also, the flesh is grape-like in that it’s very plump and juicy and downright wet. You want to look for signs of damage to the fruit (crushing) when picking them out. It’s okay for them to be a little damp on the outside, but if they’re crushed they’ll be very wet and sticky and the outer peel will be pierced. Don’t select fruit like this. It’s likely either already moldy or could also be quite fermented.

So moving on, let’s look at and talk about the process of peeling and eating one of these things. Let me start with a mini-review of structure. At the very inside of this fruit is a hard, inedible seed. If you chomp one of these things after peeling it, you’ll regret it. They should be eaten with a little delicacy and deliberation. The seed is probably the size, on average, of a peanut. Depending on the fruit, the seed could take up a significant portion of the size of the fruit, so think of the edible flesh like a coating on the seed. Determine the thickness of the flesh gingerly and you’ll get used to the idea of skimming the flesh off the seed pretty quickly. The peel is pretty tough but can usually be managed with fingernails. Some folks bite through the peel near the stem first. Also the act of pulling a fruit from the branch can start the peeling for you, especially with longan.
(Important safety tip – if you leave your fruit too long the peel can dry out. You can either soak the peel and keep using your fingernails, or we’ve had good luck with just cutting all the way down to the seed all the way around the fruit, then just pop each half of the peel away. There are other methods you can find on the Internet.)

You can see in the photo below that the longan peeling did indeed start for me when I popped it off the branch:
Longan and Lychee

Here are some peeling progress photos for a lychee:

And similar for longan:

I wanted to call out and discuss discoloration of the fruit. This holds especially for the lychee. Longan are generally uniformly white/pearl colored unless there’s something wrong with them. Look at my pictures for good color. If they’re dark-fleshed or mottled in some way, I’d recommend cutting off the dark flesh – at best it’s probably dried out – at worst it may be moldy or fermented. Lychee are a different matter – you’ll have to explore and experiment. We’ve found that the stem end and the other end of the lychee often get discolored either a brown or a reddish brown, and sometimes this swoops around the aril sort of following the natural seams. In the world of lychee eating, this is generally considered OK. It’s also, by the way, okay to eat fermented lychee and longan, just know what you’re getting into.

So here’s a picture of the stem end of a lychee. Note that the dark part is the top of the seed (more on that later). This one is not discolored:

Here’s a picture of the non-stem-end of a lychee. Note the mild discoloration. This can be much more pronounced and the lychee can still be good. We see more discoloration, oddly, with less ripe-looking (less uniformly red on the outside) lychee:

Once peeled, the fruit is ready to eat. Please note that both while you are getting used to peeling these fruit as well as if you are peeling fruit that are a little old or about to ferment (and therefore the inner membrane is less durable), you may well nick the white flesh and get juice all over your fingers. Them’s the breaks. At least you can lick your fingers off and enjoy yourself. Or, you know, have a friend do it.

Mercy.

I mentioned before about the hard, inedible seed in the center of the fruit. Here are pictures of same. Again in the case of the longan, the situation is very simple. Edible white flesh. Inedible dark seed. For lychee, there’s an additional (edible) membrane that surrounds the seed and tends to come away with the flesh. The membrane is ever so slightly crunchy and most people enjoy it quite a bit as part of the whole lychee experience.

Here are some photos of the lychee seed nestled in the flesh (with the membrane showing):

And here are pictures of the longan seed with the longan flesh:

Finally a picture of just the seeds. Yes, I ate the flesh! (longan on the left, lychee on the right):

Just a little more discussion of the seeds, which I think are gorgeous. In general, these will be seamless, but my longan seed has split a little. What I love about them are the smoothness (which certainly assists in the release of the fruit flesh from the seed) and the color. They remind me of ancient Chinese furniture with layers and layers of lacquer and stain. In general, the seeds will be full and rounded, but in some cases we’ve had great lychee with shriveled-looking seeds. This provided more flesh per fruit.

Well, I hope you enjoyed the tour. Next time you see some fresh fruit, do get them and try them out. They’re generally available in high summer.

Update: Figured I should address spoilage and selection of longan and lychee since I had to cull the herd this morning – we didn’t eat enough over the weekend to prevent this madness!

Both longan and lychee spoil by breaking down, getting wetter and fermenting. After fermentation makes progress you’ll start seeing secondary molds and so on. You have to get a sense of both of these things as you explore these fruits and related fruits (rambutan, loquat, jackfruit, mangosteen, etc.), but both fruits which are quite moist when you bite into them have a secondary membrane that covers the flesh after you peel the harder, paper-like inedible skin away. That membrane is usually translucent white and quite edible, but it’s a skin. If as you peel the fruit you accidentally puncture that inner skin, you can get a sense for how firm it is, how hard it was to puncture. If it’s really firm, you’re good. The fruit is ripe but not overripe. As it gets overripe, that inner skin disintegrates and the fruit under the outer peel is wet and transparent.

A review of terms. Translucent lets light through. Transparent lets images through. If you can see the seed from the outside of the flesh, this is a sign that fermentation is fully under way. If you cannot, and the whole fruit is a pleasant pearly translucent white, this is a sign that you’ve caught the fruit before it got overripe. Good for you! Honestly, I’ve never had or seen a fully unripe lychee or longan – in both cases they seem quite edible all the time – the less ripe, the more aromatic and less sweet the experience.

Also, wouldn’t you know it, but the pictures of longan and lychee you find on the web rarely showcase the ones going bad!

If you are selecting these fruit at the store, you want the fruit to be firm. Not hard, but firm. If you squeeze gently and the outer peel dimples you may have one on the way to fermentation. If the outer peel is cracked, it’s a goner. If it’s cracked and wet, pick only if you want to get drunk and don’t mind a little mold.

I’ll try to capture pictures if more of our batch spoil – I was pressed for time this morning.

Update 2: The long-awaited rotting fruit update. I managed to capture longan in many states of decay, and figured I should share them too, since as I noted before it’s nearly impossible to find pictures of longan GONE BAD. I’ll let the captions and descriptions speak for themselves.

I do want to say, though, that it’s possible to capture a longan and a lychee (and I imagine also a rambutan) in the act of going bad when it’s still just fermenting. As with any other fruit, it’s possible if you find the fermented taste pleasant enough, to get tipsy eating these fermented fruits. Be aware that the other side of fermented is ROTTEN and that the FDA doesn’t approve of eating fermented foods unless they’re alcohols. So don’t come crying to me if you miscalculate.

That said, eating fermented lychee in the summer in Boston Common is one of the memorable moments I have from my courtship with Hanne. Just sayin’.

Rotting longan

Rotting longan


Description (above): You can see browned and transparent flesh, both bad signs. This one is likely at least fermented if it doesn’t just taste bad.

Peel damage 1

Peel damage 1


Description (above): Damage like this indicates unsuitable moistness or wetness of the flesh within the peel. This means that the flesh is probably starting to ferment or rot. Depending on your mood, fermentation might not be a bad thing, but rottenness tastes bad. Caveat emptor.

Cracked peel

Cracked peel


Description (above): A cracked peel, especially with transparent flesh/fruit underneath it, can again indicate fermentation or rottenness. See prior notes about fermentation vs. rottenness. Fermentation can taste good but rottenness almost always tastes bad.

Peel damage 2 (browned and dented)

Peel damage 2 (browned and dented)


Description (above): More indication of moistness/wetness in flesh under the peel. This one’s also dented, which indicates that the flesh is undergoing changes that may not be desirable. See prior notes about fermentation vs. rottenness. Fermentation can taste good but rottenness almost always tastes bad.

Peel damage 3 (mottled and discolored)

Peel damage 3 (mottled and discolored)


Description (above): Mottling and discoloration is bad. See prior notes about fermentation vs. rottenness. Fermentation can taste good but rottenness almost always tastes bad.

Peel damage 4 (soaked)

Peel damage 4 (soaked)


Description (above): The peel is soaked. Very likely well beyond fermented, but YMMV. See prior notes about fermentation vs. rottenness. Fermentation can taste good but rottenness almost always tastes bad.

Peel damage 5 (discoloration)

Peel damage 5 (discoloration)


Description (above): Discoloration could mean many things, but see prior notes about fermentation vs. rottenness. Fermentation can taste good but rottenness almost always tastes bad.

Peel damage 6 (mold?)

Peel damage 6 (mold?)


Description (above): Not only is the peel wet, but it seems like the white stuff around the wet spot might indicate mold. Probably give this one an outright miss, but if you’re adventurous, see prior notes about fermentation vs. rottenness. Fermentation can taste good but rottenness almost always tastes bad.

Peel damage 7 (discoloration)

Peel damage 7 (discoloration)


Description (above): See prior notes about fermentation vs. rottenness. Fermentation can taste good but rottenness almost always tastes bad.

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