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The Wild, Wondrous History of Lychee

Treacherous rebels were amassing support in the outskirts while licentious interlopers lounged in teahouses and corruption lurked in every alleyway and courtyard in the capital. The 8th-century Tang Empire’s unparalleled prosperity could have continued for centuries but Emperor Xuanzong instead had allowed it to crumble. Incredibly, lychee fruits lie at the center of the story.

The stark white fruits encased in crimson shells with an alluring rose, pear and grape flavor were a favorite treat of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang’s most beloved consort, Yang Guifei (Dương Quý Phi), one of China’s infamous four beauties. To get a sense of how much he loved her, just consider the fact that she was originally his son’s wife before he fell for her and gave his son a new wife in exchange! Rather than attend to his court duties or matters of diplomacy, Xuanzong worried only about lavishing her with gifts and attention to satisfy her fickle preferences. If lychee could make her smile, he would do whatever it took to provide her with fresh ones every day, even if that meant establishing a pony express spanning the length of the kingdom.

Lychee is infamous for its ephemerality. Not only is its growing season short, but once ripe, the fruits quickly go bad. An ancient Chinese text claims that within one day of being picked, lychee’s color rapidly diminishes, its fragrance disappears second, the flavor third and after that, it hardly retains any of its original virtue. This presented a problem for Xuanzong and his daughter-in-law/bride because they resided in the Eastern capital of Chang-an while the fruits grew in Sichuan, more than 700 kilometers away. To conquer such a distance, Xuanzong established a system where a relay of perpetually sprinting horses raced the lychee across the nation so they would arrive fresh.

Rather than create this lychee transfer route, Xuanzong should probably have been keeping a closer eye on the relatives of Yang Guifei who were gathering power and ultimately sewing the discord that would topple the dynasty and necessitate Guifei’s execution. Nevertheless, his devotion is remembered and exemplified by the lychee road, so much so that it was immortalized in one of the country’s most famous poems 'Passing Huaqing Palace' by Du Mu:

Viewed from Chang’an, Mount Li seemed a piece of embroidery;

Countless gates opened one after another on a hill-top.

At a horse raising red dust the imperial concubine smiled;

No one knew it was for the litchi fruit it had brought.

A McDonald's TVC retelling the story. Video via McDonald's YouTube.

Lychee vs Litchi: A Twist of the Tongue

In Chinese, Lychee is written as 荔枝 and pronounced as Li-zi. An alternative spelling 离枝, can be translated as “leaving the branch,” in reference to how it is harvested with stalks still attached because of how quickly it must be consumed after they are removed.

On its own, Li (荔) is a homonym for Li (利), which means intelligent or clever. Similarly, 利子, which translates to “interest in money” as well as to have a son, is pronounced similarly and reveals the culture’s respect for the fruit as reflected by their language. These linguistic quirks have given it symbolic importance for artwork as well. It is often depicted in paintings given as wedding presents as auspicious signs of the new couple bearing children.

17th-century Chinese woodblock print via Chinasage.

While it is known as vải in Vietnamese, as the translation of the poem above presents, in English, it can be written in one of two ways. While its scientific name is Litchi chinensis, it is frequently seen written as lychee, particularly in products and material originating from America. Moreover, it’s pronounced as both 'lye-che' and 'lee-chee.’ Interestingly, how one says it often reveals one’s home country. The former is a Cantonese pronunciation while the latter owes its origin to Mandarin. In America, for example, many say ‘lee-chee’ thanks to the Chinese spoken by the wave of immigrants that helped bring and popularize the fruit in Americans via restaurants and grocery stores. Britain, by contrast, likely first encountered it via their Cantonese-speaking colony in Hong Kong and thus say “lye-che.”

Ancient Origins, Rapid Proliferation and Diversification

Records of lychee stretch back three thousand years. The plant, which is the sole member of the genus Litchi, is native to the area between southern China and northern Vietnam. Wild trees can still be found in these areas, including the Ba Vi Mountains and forests in Tam Dao (Vinh Phuc Province) and Tuyen Hoa (Quang Binh Province). In the last 400 years, lychee trees have spread throughout Southeast Asia, reaching Myanmar by the beginning of the 18th century and from there, India, which is now the world’s second-largest producer. By 1775 they had reached the West Indies and by the start of the 19th century, they could be found in French and English greenhouses. By 1873 they hit Hawaii, and Florida in 1883.

All lychee are not created equal, however. There are more than 60 different varieties, each boasting different yields, fruit and skin textures, seed densities and flavor profiles. Each variety has a different name, including such delights as (when translated into English): “rhinoceros horn,” “pond embankment,” “President of a Board's embrace,” “eight precious fragrances” and the particularly popular Fei tsu hsiao, which translates to “imperial concubine’s smile,” in homage to the legend associated with it. While the varieties were historically the result of different wild ancestors and personalized cultivation, the emergence of modern fruit science and genetic engineering could lead to even more unique varieties in the future.

It’s worth noting that the quality and diversity of lychee drop significantly the further it's grown from its place of origin. While dozens of varieties are harvested in Vietnam and China, the US, for example, sees but a few, and those are chosen less for their taste than for their ease of cultivation and shelf lives. The fruits consumed in far-flung places also suffer a lack of cultural knowledge or reverence. In Miami, for example, where the fruit is grown in mass but still seen as an oddity, people often consume it well before or after its ideal ripeness. Moreover, many people only encounter it in its canned form where it is ensconced in a heavy syrup that obscures all its graceful subtlety. Those of us in Vietnam, should, therefore, take pride in the fact that we are privy to the fruit at its height of diversity, freshness and quality.

Lychee in Vietnam

Photo by Ngoc Thanh via VnExpress.

Each year, it seems every major Vietnamese news outlet publishes the same story showcasing the streets, markets and orchards in Bac Giang and Hai Duong provinces in northern Vietnam filled with lychees. While the repetition may say nothing great about journalistic creativity, it does underscore the abundance of the fruit in the nation. Some have even called for it to be listed as the national fruit. Vietnam produces 200,000 metric tons of it every year, with 60% sold domestically, while the remaining 40% is shipped to foreign markets including Thailand, Singapore, the US, Australia, Japan, South Korea and Europe.

Thanks to such a glut of fruit ripening at the same time, competition to sell it is fierce and profit margins are thin. One grower named Tran Van Hai explains, “Prices fluctuate notably depending on farmers, areas, and when the fruits are purchased. My lychees were priced VND14,000 (US$ 0.7) per kilogram this morning, but they are likely to drop to a mere VND8,000 per kilogram this afternoon.” Many of the farmers aim to sell their entire harvests in bulk to domestic and foreign distributors as to avoid the market’s uncertainties.

Good for Your Health (or Really Terrible for It)

Chinese traditional medicine considers lychee a “hot” food and when made into wines, soups and porridges, it is believed to help relieve pain, nourish blood and stop bleeding. Because lychees are high in Vitamins C and B, fiber, copper and phosphorus, they have numerous health benefits, according to Western experts. Supposedly, they promote healthy skin, hair, digestion and weight loss while combating heart disease and cancer.

While they hold beneficial properties, lychees have also been linked to hundreds of deaths. For decades, every year at least a hundred children died in India from a mysterious illness. Scientists recently discovered that the high fevers were caused by an amino acid in the fruit that drastically lowers glucose levels which can lead to seizures and death for people suffering from malnourishment, such as those in impoverished, lychee-growing areas. A recent study, however, claims that it is not the lychees themselves that are causing the illness, but rather toxins in the pesticides that are sprayed on the lychee trees.  

Chips, Ketchup and Condoms

Illustration by Hannah Hoang.

Beyond being delicious fresh, lychees’ sweet, floral taste makes them an obvious ingredient and flavor for a variety of dishes. They are found, for example, in countless drinks including teas, sodas and martinis as well as desserts like yogurt, chè thái (fruits mixed in sweet coconut milk) and ice cream.

Recently lychees have popped up in some more unusual places. It can be found as a flavor of Chinese potato chips and even condoms. And with what seems the fate of all Asian foods, Western chefs have co-opted it for some hipster recipes that include a salsa to accompany tuna steaks, ceviche with cashew cheese and even a food abomination that places a hamburger between two ramen noodle patties topped with a dollop of lychee ketchup.

Ranking fruits is a tireless, some would argue useless endeavor. But if one were to attempt to assess lychee's place in the pantheon of Vietnamese fruits, surely its seductively sugary, floral flavor, succulent flesh and the ease in which it can be transported and consumed would place it towards the top. And if one grants extra marks for historic significance, role in arts, literature and pop culture and takes into account scarcity due to a limited harvest season, lychee unquestionably rests as a top tier fruit. 

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