On our cross-country trip from California to North Carolina we stopped for several days in Texas to visit Mr. TA’s father and his lovely wife, B. She and I spent most of the time we were there shopping for new clothes (30 lbs. really makes a difference in the fit of your clothes, I’ve found), but upon meandering into a grocery store looking for steak for dinner that night I discovered these.
I had no idea what they were; strange brown globes about the size of a ping-pong ball attached to a big stick with the leaves still attached. But, as is my wont, whenever I see something new at a grocery or market I buy it and try it, just to exapnd my knowledge and palate. It's how I tried passionfruit in it's whole form, plus kiwano, kumquats, and chermoyas. I think it's the easiest way to discover new likes - see it, buy it, try it. Then figure out how I can work it into a recipe that will really showcase it's flavor.
I assumed from the appearance and it's location next to the Asian produce that it was related to the lychee, but beyond that I had no clue. I was very excited as I carted the purchase home, eager to discover what I had...discovered.
Longans are, apparently, the much neglected little brother of the lychee fruit. They are often referred to as Dragon’s Eyes because the small black stone in the center of fruit can sometimes be seen through the opaque white flesh – thereby resembling a pupil in the center of an eye.
They are native to Southeast China, and there bear the name of 龙眼. Longans are also prolific in most parts of Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia. I found conflicting information on the appreciation of the fruit - some sites saying that the Chinese preferred the fruit to its more famous cousin, the lychee, and others saying that the longan is ignored because the lychee far outshines it in both taste and availability.
In several articles I found the flavor described as sweet, juicy, musky, and succulent. After trying several I can honestly say that it tastes nearly exactly like a honeydew melon, only with the texture of a peeled grape. Namely, it was delicious. Especially as the garnish for a few of B's delicious Banana Coladas, enjoyed in the hot Texas sun on the patio of their beautiful home.
I can see these turned into a luscious sorbet, or utilized in really any way similar to how the lychee is used. It was great as a garnish for a frosty, adult beverage. I also imagine it pairing well with a variety of other fruits in a fruit sald, or for just eating out of hand. They are surprisingly easy to shell. Just a quick flick with the blade of a paring knife around the equator of the fruit and it slides right out. I found a Vietnamese riddle on Wikipedia about shelling the fruits, "Toad's skin covers tapioca flour, tapioca flour covers coal stone." I imagine that it's lost a bit of sense in the translation...
When dried the longan's pure, white flesh turns into a dark brown, almost black color. In it's dried state the Chinese use it in sweet dessert soups and in many other sweetened, snack-like applications.
I haven't yet seen them here in North Carolina. Though, without any way to cook it's been pointless and frustrating to even enter a grocery store. They are very scarce in the United States, so if I find them again I'll be sure to grab some - they're a fun segue from normal, everyday fruits.
Next time you see some weird brown globes still attached to the stick in your local grocery store, be sure to snatch some up - they're quite delicious.