Lychee might just be the most unusual Southeast Asian fruit you’ve never tried. But, believe us, there’s nothing weird about how delicious it tastes.
Pronounced lee-chee, the fruit got its start in the southern Chinese provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, where it was first cultivated around 1059 AD.
But it was an undeniable star from the start, quickly gaining popularity for its sweet taste and unique fleshy bite—that is, for those who dared go more than skin-deep.
Though it’s often confused with its far flashier cousin, the rambutan – which sports a head-full of green and pink spikes – the lychee isn’t without its weird outer shell, which looks something like the cross between a chestnut and a raspberry.
Even those brave enough to break into the fruit may have taken pause. One of lychee’s less-flattering nicknames is the eyeball fruit, thanks to its white-translucent flesh and oblong, black—and very much inedible—pit, giving it an eerie look that looks right back.
But we sure are glad enough people wanted to see for themselves what it tasted like.
From its humble beginnings, the lychee has gone on to travel the world, and today it’s grown all over Southeast Asia, including China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and India. (South Africa and Australia are also major growers.)
And a number of cultivars have sprouted up in its wake – though this is another area where lychee is just a bit strange.
Depending on where it’s grown, the same cultivar may produce very different kinds of lychee. Trees can be entirely dependable or utterly unreliable, based on the climate around them. And further confusing things are the very different—and very regional—names attached to each variety.
Still, no matter what it’s called, the lychee has become known as a symbol of love in its native China, where its red color is considered especially romantic.
We love that, and love our different kinds of lychees too, no matter which of the below cultivars they claim:
Bengal—Don’t let the name fool you. This cultivar is more typically grown in South Africa and Australia than the Indian subcontinent. And its personal details are equally confusing: The variety is as revered for its sweet taste as it is reviled for its irregular growing habits.
Sweetheart—Unlike its Bengali cousin, this type of lychee is aptly named – and widely loved – thanks to a heart-shaped shell that bears an abundant, tasty fruit which can be relied upon to blossom regularly. What a sweetie!
Mauritius—Grown everywhere from its namesake island off the African coast to orchards all the way in Florida, this cultivar is popular among growers for its regular and robust fruits, which produce a type of pit referred to as a “chicken tongue.” We’re pretty sure that’s just a nickname!
Hak Ip—This one looks as cool as it sounds. In Chinese, the name means “black leaf,” and that’s indeed the type of foliage this lychee tree sports – along with a larger and particularly sweet variety of the fruit itself.
Brewster—A farmer favorite in Florida (since the cultivar seems to love the climate there), this type of lychee is particularly dark red, and larger and tastier than many other varieties. In other areas of the world, it’s a less dependable friend, with the tree only fruiting every other season.
Kaimana—Looking like the thing it’s most likely to break, this heart-shaped lychee varietal is not a very good grower, only sprouting sporadically. Still, when it does, it’s one of the best-tasting cultivars around, making it an especially complicated relationship.
Sweet Cliff—One of the smallest kinds of lychee on the market, this varietal sports a pink-tinged flesh that hides underneath its unique-looking pebbly exterior. However, it’s every-other-year growing schedule makes it one of the less popular types of lychee.
No Mai Tsze—Representing another lychee conundrum, this varietal is considered by some growers to be the best-tasting of all, with a crispier inside, sweeter flesh, and smaller seed. Still, its small size and—stop us if you’ve heard this one before—irregular growing pattern make it a high-risk, high-reward cultivar.
Emperor—Just call it king of the lychees. This varietal is the largest of all lychee fruit, typically growing to be the size of a golf ball or more. But it takes time to put in such effort, and it can take up to four years for an Emperor lychee to claim its full-grown crown.
But for all its quirks, we think the weirdest thing about lychee may be that we all aren’t eating one right now. (Seriously. They’re so delicious.)