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Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

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Litchi chinensis (formerly Nephelium litchi), is the best and best known of a group of tropical fruits native to China and SE Asia. The name is sometimes spelled ‘litchi’. Others in the same genus are the longan, rambutan, and pulasan.

Lychees are borne by a large, evergreen tree which has been cultivated in S. China since the 1st century bc, or even earlier. The tree will fruit only in a subtropical or tropical climate where there is a distinct dry season. So it has always been an exotic import for the N. Chinese. During the 1st century AD a special courier service with swift horses was set up to bring fresh lychees from Canton north to the imperial court. The fruit was considered the finest of southern delicacies, and Ts’ai Hsiang, in his Li chih pu (Treatise on Lychees), testified to the great demand for it during the Song (Sung) dynasty (ad 960–1279). Growing the fruit was at that time and later a large and ruthlessly competitive business. A lighter aspect is provided by the unusual nomenclature of what were considered to be the finest varieties, including ‘glutinous rice dumpling’ with its tiny ‘chicken-tongue’ seeds and ‘imperial concubine’s laugh’. This last, according to Karp (personal communication, 1997) drawing on Groff (1921), ‘commemorates the celebrated Lady Yang, whose passion for lychees, fetched at great cost by the imperial courier service, helped cause the downfall of her lover, the emperor Hsüan Tsung, in 756 ad’. The same author describes how ‘clubs of devotees met in temples and gardens to consume hundreds at a sitting’ during the later period of the Ming dynasty.