An Ode to Lychees

I started eating lychees over ice when I was probably about 11, long before calories meant anything. (Canned, they're 100 calories to a serving. If you care.) At the time, I lived in central Long Beach, near the city's first high school, an area that still housed Navy families in 1971, when my family moved in. Ten years later, they were gone, as were their replacements—African-Americans—and the neighborhood was predominantly Vietnamese. The change was good; I'm not being racist when I say that the street went from late nights, loud music and cars parked in the front yards to quiet evenings visiting your neighbors—and sampling virtually every Vietnamese dish you can imagine. Including lychees.

For almost a century, California foodies have grown lychees—walnut-size Chinese tree fruits with meaty, white flesh. But most of the fruits are imported, and, like other imports (consider the starfruit), their pale, sharp goodness is the perfect dessert or snack in these late days of summer, when even a Fudgsicle would be too weighty. They're a relative of something called a soapberry—but I never knew that until now.

I remember one of the Banhs—in whose home I probably spent a minimum of a half-hour each day, watching music videos or playing with their daughters or grandsons—thrusting a rice bowl of lychees into my hands one warm, lazy afternoon. We were playing Sub Hunt—and admiring its dot-matrix graphics—when my friend Tuong's grandmother handed us two bowls of lychees. Actually, she just set them down; he was busy working the massive Atari joystick and didn't look up. I had time to kill (he was kicking my ass), and lychees, it turned out, were the perfect distraction.

The lychee's flesh seems almost translucent when set against ice, and it tastes that way too: delicately present, never overpowering. They don't really taste like anything you've ever had, but canned there's a definite note of orange. Could be the syrup. Fresh, they're firmer—cut into one, and the thin, bark-like peel falls away from the meat—and the taste is indescribable. I'd say that it tastes like a tropical rainstorm—thinking of Vietnam—but lychees are Chinese. Then again, it rains in China too.

Despite my love for lychees, it took me 20 years to eat them again after those afternoons with Tuong. I entered a different world once high school was over, and the parents of my Vietnamese friends bought bigger houses in better parts of Long Beach. But the minute I opened a can of Elephant-brand peeled and seeded lychees in syrup, drained them, and bit into one, I remembered why I liked them so much. I knew exactly what I was in for when I opened the can this time, and neither 99 Ranch Market in Irvine nor Walong Marketing in Buena Park (where the Elephant cans come from) disappointed.

Lychees also age well; I have some in my refrigerator now. All that's missing is the presentation: in a plastic rice bowl with cheap spoons, served over those tubular ice cubes with holes in the middle during a game of Sub Hunt. (Theo Douglas)

Lychees are currently available fresh or canned at 99 Ranch Market, 15333 Culver Dr., Irvine, (949) 651-8899; also at 651 N. Euclid St., Anaheim, (714) 776-8899; and 5402 Walnut Ave., Irvine, (949) 651-8888.


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