The Honorable Concubine’s Favorite Fruit
First Food Shipped by Refrigerated Transport

“Eunuchs gallop up in continuous succession,
“Bearing delicacies for the Imperial kitchens.”
Tu Fu, “Ballad of Lovely Women” [1]

It was the eighth century.  The eunuchs were Imperial couriers, a kind of Chinese Pony Express.

Their saddlebags were crammed full of fresh Litchi fruit from Sichuan on their way to deliver them to the court at Chang An at the pinnacle of ripeness.

cooking with litchi fruit

Litchi Fruit jn Syrup

The fruit is in season for a short time only and spoils rapidly.

Litrchi fruit was one delicacy the imperial favorite Yang Kuei-fei absolutely had to have.  So the couriers had to rush the fruit to her by any means.

The scene of the frantic riders and galloping horses was a dramatic episode in Mizoguchi’s classic movie Princess Yang Kuei-fei, starring Machiko Kyo. [2]

The extravagance and luxury of the favorite concubine — symbolized by her addiction to Litchi fruit — helped bring down the Emperor and his dynasty, as chronicled by China’s greatest poet in the Ballad of Lovely Women.

Chang An, in present day Shensi Province, is over a thousand miles from Litchi producing areas in the South and Southwest of China.  So the couriers had to carry their precious cargo in swift relays, like the Pony Express carrying mail in the Old West.

Old Chinese accounts also mention the use of ice to maintain the freshness of the Litchi fruits.  So Litchi may have been the first food shipped to market by refrigerated transport. [3]

And it wasn’t only Chinese royalty who were addicted to the unique subtle flavor and aroma of Litchi.  On a flight once into Pnom Penh on Royal Air Cambodge, my young son began to explore the aircraft, eventually disappearing behind the curtain that separated the First Class cabin from the baggage compartment.

The stewardess was upset and asked me to help in retrieving the child.  When I entered the cargo section to lead him back, I found the cargo consisted of two large wooden crates lashed to the deck.  The contents were described in French as “Litchi Nuts” and the consignee was listed as “The Queen Mother, The Palace, Pnom Penh.”

So Litchi has long been and continues to be a delicacy of Asian elites, one with numerous and ancient literary associations.

Typically, litchi fruit, either fresh or in the dried version, have appeared as desserts at first-class Chinese banquets.  Chinese chefs use them in chicken and duck dishes, and sometimes paired with seafood such as scallops. [4,5]

Litchi Tea

Litchi fruit — or Litchi nuts as they are sometimes called, maybe in reference to the large seed they contain — appear in a number of formats, fresh, canned and preserved, including as an addition to black tea.Litchi tea doesn’t contain any visible Litchi fruit, but the sweetness and fruit flavor permeate the brewed tea.  Some Chinese gourmets think Litchi tea goes well with desserts and sweet cakes.

“I recommend that with your dessert, you drink Litchi Black tea, which has a lovely aroma not unlike that of those sweet fruits.” — Eileen Yin-fei Lo [6]

Litchi fruit appears by itself, in the fresh form, where you just peel and eat it, and later when it is dried, it is still good.  The skin then is paper-thin, and easy to remove with a sharp knife or more commonly a fingernail.

Litchi even appears in its own liqueur. Recently a Japanese restaurant in Chicago has begun offering a cocktail called Lychee at Night — a concoction of Vodka, Litchi Liqueur, Litchi Purée, Lime and Blackberries. [6a]

Litchi in Pacific Rim Cuisines: Litchi is thought to have affinities with a number of meats and appears in several forms in the cuisines of the region.[7]

Besides the Chinese pairings with duck and chicken, in Southeast Asia, Litchi often appears as an ingredient in marinades for meats to be grilled.  Jean-Georges Vongerichten has used Litchi in a Thai-influence Fusion dish, prepared along with Papaya in a soup he serves with a coconut-lime sorbet. [8]

There’s also a Hawaiian version, Lychee Jubilee, served among Kamai;in a circles in the Islands, in which the fruit is flamed with liquors and poured over desserts.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the Litchi fruit is considered to have a warm nature.

Nutritionally, Litchi is low in calories, and is a source of Vitamin C.  It is high in sugar.

Litchi is native to South China and most of it comes from Fujian, Guangdong and Sichuan Provinces. [10]

Litchi can also be used to make ice cream.  Here’s a recipe for Litchi Ice Cream which contains no dairy.  You will not find it in any cookbook.

Litchi Ice Cream, Nondairy


1 large can Litchi fruit, with syrup
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 cup sugar
2 cups almond milk
1 cup rice milk


First, process the Litchi fruit with its juice fairly smoothly in a blender or food processor, but leave some small chunks of fruit; that is, do not pureé totally, but leave some fruit texture.  Add the lemon juice and sugar and mix together.

Then add the almond milk and rice milk and process according to your ice cream maker’s instructions. This produces a very nice, smooth, granita-type ice cream with no dairy and no preservatives.  Use within about a week for best results.  After 1 or 2 weeks, the structure of the ice cream deteriorates and some of the flavor may be lost.

For Further Information:

[1] David Hawkes, A Little Primer of Tu Fu (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967) —
[2] Kenzo Mizoguchi, Princess Yang Kuei-fei  —
Donald Richie
, A Hundred Years of Japanese Film (Tokyo: Kodansha, 2005 —
[3] Jane Grigson and Charlotte Knox, Cooking with Exotic Fruits and Vegetables (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1986) —
[4] Buwei Yang Chao, How to Cook and Eat in Chinese (New York: John Day, 1949), on Litchi at formal Chinese banquets —
[5] Gloria Bley Miller, The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook (New York: Atheneum, 1966), recipes for Litchi with chicken and duck —
[6] Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, The Chinese Banquet Cookbook —
[6a] Restaurant Japonais, reported in Chicago RedEye, June 3, 2013.
[7] “Litchi,” article, Wikipedia —
[8] Litchi and Papaya Soup with Coconut-Lime Sorbet, as served by Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Vong’s, Molly O’Neill, “Postcards from the Sun,” New York Times Magazine, January 23, 1994, pp.49-50 —
[9] “Raw litchi fruit,” Self Nutrition —
[10] Tetsuji Morohashi, Dai Kan-Wa Jiten, v.9, p.617, article 30865, “lì,”  —








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