Most Americans are only familiar with lychee as an item on the dessert menu at Chinese restaurants. Often erroneously called "lychee nuts," the fruit is indigenous to China and popular for snacking or desserts. On the tree, it is protected by a bumpy, leathery rind that is inedible. This rind easily comes away from the juicy flesh of the fruit, which is translucent and a pearly white color. It is sweet and crispy, and many people enjoy eating it fresh.
Lychee is also found canned or dried. Slightly smaller than an apricot, fresh ones make great lunch-bag additions, since the rind protects the fruit until the person is ready to eat it. Canned lychees can be used to make a fruit cocktail more exotic and interesting. In the center of the fruit is a hard seed or nut, which is discarded. It is inedible, like the rind, and slightly toxic.
This fruit is a rich source of vitamin C, as well as calcium, potassium and phosphorus. It is often used in cooking to flavor a meat dish, much like pineapple or raisins are used to flavor a ham. The fruit is also pressed for juice, and pulped to make a sherbet dish which is very popular in China. It is also used to flavor tea.
Cultivation of the lychee has expanded outside of China, and the fruit is now a popular export from Australia and are also grown in California and Florida. An unusual use of the tree is to keep bee hives in the groves. The honey made by these bees is reported to have some of the flavor of the fruit itself. In China, lychees are prized not only for their flavor, but for purported medicinal properties — eating the fruit is suggested as a cure for a cough, digestive complaints and even ulcers.
Lychees will not ripen any further after they have been taken from the tree, so only ripe fruit should be picked. Unripened ones have a bitter taste. The fresh fruit has a short shelf life, so cooks should plan to use it as soon as possible.