HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND
What Are Those “Hairy” Fruits?
We can’t grow cherries in Hawaii – it’s just not cold enough in the winter. (Not that we wish it were any colder. This past week, Hilo felt an all-time low of . . . 58º F!).
But a family of sweet tree-fruits with small pits does very well here, and one of them, which is in season right now, is probably the most other-worldly-looking fruit you’ll ever see.
First, though, let’s talk about the most famous member of this family. It’s is the lychee (“LIE-CHEE”), which some people call litchi-nut (“LEE-CHEE nut”). But lychees are to litchi-nuts what grapes are to raisins.
Lychees come ripe in the summertime. In Hawaii, you can buy them at farmers’ markets; on the Mainland, they’re in “Asian” produce stalls. Many years ago, dried litchi-nuts were a popular dessert in Chinese restaurants; but they’re rarely served nowadays, because (like cherries) lychees do not lose their flavor or texture when they’re canned, and thus give you a good idea of what they would taste like if they were fresh.
The skin of a lychee is red, thin, and rough like a golf ball. The fruit originated in Asia, and almost certainly had a large pit when it was first cultivated; some varieties still do. But 20th century agronomists developed varieties with small, shriveled pits within fruits of the same size, which have more sweet meat per pound. Many farmers’ market vendors will tell you which variety they’re offering, and the big-pit versions may be cheaper.
A related fruit, also from Asia, is the longan (“LONG-gone”), whose season generally follows that of lychee. Longans are smaller than lychees, but the seed is proportionally larger. The fruit is also sweeter, although some people consider it cloying, or excessively fragrant. The skin is brown or greenish-brown, and somewhat brittle. Local farmers have developed techniques for boosting longan production, and thereby extending the season into the cooler months.
In the past few years, however, Hawaii farmers have increasingly planted a related fruit, from Southeast Asia , called rambutan (“RAHM-boo-tahn”). Compared to lychees, rambutans are larger and elongated, the seed is more firmly attached, the fruit is not quite as juicy, and the flavor is more subtle. But the biggest difference is that rambutans are . . . well, hairy. Curly bristles surround the skin, making it look like the egg of an alien creature. The skin itself is also thicker and tougher – you’ll need to nick it with a knife, to start peeling it away.
Rambutans are gaining in popularity for several reasons. On the tree, that thicker skin offers better protection against insects and diseases, and in the markets, it helps to give the fruit a longer shelf-life. The season for rambutan is also offset from the others: it starts after lychee and longan have run their course, and peaks in the cooler winter months.
So look for lychees and longans later in the year. Right now is the time to enjoy rambutan!