What’s a Litchi and How Do I Eat One?

Shopping for produce (called “fruit and veg” in South Africa) is a tourist activity in itself.

You can buy produce at the grocery story here, just as you can in America. But it’s much more fun (and usually more economical) to shop at local fruit and veg markets. When I first arrived my favorite market was the Tyrone Fruiterers in Parkview, but Joe and I have since become regulars at Imapla Fruit and Veg in Northcliff.

Nectarines for sale at Impala.

Impala sells fruits, vegetables, and a few other specialty products like pasta and locally made jam. The man in charge, a jolly guy named Frank, takes fruit and veg seriously. Even in the middle of the afternoon on a weekday, his store is busy and he’s answering questions left and right from his customers.

Frank in the melon aisle at Impala.

It’s not only the markets themselves that are different from what I’m used to — it’s the products being sold. Before I came here I had never heard of a baby gem squash (a golf-ball-sized zucchini) or a pawpaw. (Pawpaw is South African for papaya. I knew what a papaya was before I moved to South Africa, but I had never bought one. As far as I know papayas aren’t available at grocery stores on the East Coast of the U.S., although Wikipedia says pawpaws are native to North America. I’m not sure what this is about and your insight is welcome.)

I’d heard of litchis before I came to South Africa. In my mind they were vaguely similar to water chestnuts — white, firm, canned, and served in Asian restaurants. It turns out that a litchi (also spelled lychee) is a fruit — of Chinese origin but also cultivated in South Africa. They’re in season now and all over the fruit and veg markets in Joburg. Joe finally bought a packet and I ate my first one yesterday.

This is the packet of litchis with the plastic removed. I love that there was an actual litchi leaf included with the fruit. (This and the rest of the photos are courtesy of Joe.)

Joe instructed me to peel off the skin. It’s sort of coarse and prickly.

After getting the first layer off, there was another thin film below. Beneath that, a gelatinous white mass that Joe compares to a quail’s egg. It reminds me of an eyeball.

Down the hatch.

The texture is a bit weird at first. You can’t swallow it right away because there is a pit (or “pip” in South African) inside.

Litchis are sweet and, as Wikipedia says, delicate and perfume-flavored.

Sucking the last of the fruit from the pip.

Done and ready for another.

Pineapple season is just beginning and I’ll be cutting my first whole pineapple next week. Wish me luck.

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26 Comments

  • Reply Bob Yule January 13, 2011 at 1:04 am

    I love lychees – used to eat them all the time in Asia. They’re great travel snacks, too!

  • Reply Fidel Hart January 13, 2011 at 5:31 am

    Lychees are delicious. I first had them while living in So Cal. They are popular at the Vietnamese grocers in Little Saigon (Garden Grove and Westminster, CA). I ate them in these jelly snacks that you pop in your mouth like a jello shot.
    It wasn’t until I moved to Asia that I had them in their natural state. Still just as enjoyable, only harder to get to.

    • Reply 2summers January 13, 2011 at 10:37 am

      They are a bit difficult to get to, and I’ve discovered today that they get harder as they age. The skin hardens and becomes more difficult to peel off.

      • Reply Fidel Hart January 13, 2011 at 12:16 pm

        You should buy them already peeled and in a can.

        • Reply 2summers January 13, 2011 at 6:51 pm

          But that would ruin all the fun!

  • Reply lisa@notesfromafrica January 13, 2011 at 6:02 am

    I love your child-like wonder at everything new you discover here. South Africans came across all these things as children, and take a lot for granted.

    Papaya vs Pawpaw vs mugua? How much time do you have?! What we have here is the tropical papaya (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Papaya) which is also sometimes known as pawpaw or mugua (in some parts of the world). However, there is a completely unrelated North American species called pawpaw (fruit does look somewhat similar) and a completely unrelated species called mugua somewhere else. I think early travellers all thought they were the same thing, and then botanists discovered that they weren’t! All clear now?! 🙂

    • Reply 2summers January 13, 2011 at 9:53 am

      That is extremely helpful — thank you! I had a feeling the North American pawpaw must be something different. I’ve had “papaya” in the U.S. before but it was always already peeled and cut up and didn’t taste anything like pawpaws do here.

  • Reply Slowvelder January 13, 2011 at 9:25 am

    Yum – I love lychees and they grow around here so we get them fresh off the farmers trees. I just cant bear to touch the flesh so I get my daughter to peel them for me and pop them into my mouth 🙂

  • Reply Tilly Bud January 13, 2011 at 9:41 am

    I only ate them once. I couldn’t get over my revulsion towards the flesh. Love the photos of you eating them!

  • Reply Deano January 13, 2011 at 2:02 pm

    Heather,
    You are too funny! Those pictures were descriptive….I felt like I was trying litches….:)

    Deano

  • Reply eremophila January 13, 2011 at 11:50 pm

    It’s wonderful to experience new foods! Thanks for sharing this experience, the photos are priceless!

    • Reply 2summers January 14, 2011 at 8:33 am

      Thanks. I thought Joe was being silly when he insisted on getting the camera to document my first litchi-eating experience. But now I’m glad he did!

  • Reply clouded marble January 14, 2011 at 7:05 pm

    🙂 Like the photos, very expressive.

  • Reply The Chic Nerd January 16, 2011 at 5:47 am

    Litchi? That’s what they’re called?
    Wow, I love this things…thanks for the great reference. 😉 It was love at first bite for me. Although they looked kind of wacky at first, I turned out loving ’em!

    • Reply 2summers January 16, 2011 at 10:06 am

      Yep, they are litchis, although it can also be spelled “lychee” or “leechi.” (I love Wikipedia.) Glad you enjoyed the post!

  • Reply 2summers February 1, 2011 at 9:31 am

    Hey there, I see you’ve linked to my blog post but I don’t see a credit. Please add a credit to 2summers and then I’ll approve it. Thanks!

  • Reply Derek Smith March 8, 2011 at 2:00 pm

    Frank actually owns Impala (with his family I think) and the whole building as well! 😀

  • Reply Clare Appleyard July 27, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    Love Impala! We should go shopping then hook up at Olivia’s next door for coffee….you can review their cappucino’s!

    • Reply 2summers July 28, 2011 at 8:24 am

      I actually just went to Olivia’s for the first time the other day…Not bad.

  • Reply Joburg Expat July 30, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    Can’t wait for the “how to eat a mango” post once they’re in season again. I’ve developed my own technique but am open to learning others!

    • Reply 2summers July 30, 2011 at 8:56 pm

      I would like to see your post on eating mangoes. I LOVE them, but I’m terrible at cutting them up and always make a big mess.

  • Reply Lu July 30, 2011 at 8:42 pm

    Litchis also remind me of eyeballs.. Fun post! I’m with Joburg Expat – would love to see you tackle a mango 🙂

    • Reply 2summers July 30, 2011 at 8:57 pm

      I have a confession to make: I never ate another litchi after writing this post. I think they’re tasty but kinda weird.

  • Reply Julia Johansen September 9, 2011 at 4:24 pm

    Lychees are so tasty! I like to freeze them in their skins and then peel off the skin and eat them.

    My old roommate had rats, and as a treat we would give them a frozen lychee. It was hilarious to watch the rat hold it with the two front paws, then drop it and shake its hands because the lychee was so cold, then go back to it. They freaking loved the lychees.

    • Reply 2summers September 9, 2011 at 4:40 pm

      Hahahaha! That’s absolutely hilarious that you fed litchis to rats. Your description paints such a funny picture in my mind. Were they pet-rats or vermin-rats?

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