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The Succulent Thai Litchee

THE CYCLE OF THE seasons has always governed Thai farming, and nowhere is this more true than in the seasonal abundance of certain fruits. Perhaps the finest of all the delectable fruit that can be found in Thailand is the juicy, refreshing, yet subtle flavoured litchee, or lynchee as the Thais themselves call it. The litchee was known to have been cultivated in China over 4,000 years ago, but was not reported to have been grown in Thailand until the early 18th Century. Adapting well to the Lanna soils and climate, the new arrival was extensively planted, particularly in the northern provinces of Chiangmai, Chiangrai and Phayao, from where the bulk of the Kingdom's crop still comes.

The litchee prefers a rich, wet and acid soil for ideal growth, and benefits from the cool winter airs, blowing from its Chinese homeland, for bountiful flowering and fruiting. Some litchee trees are grown in the upper northeast, where similar winter weather is found, and a heat-tolerant variety is grown in Amphawa district of Samut Songkhram, west of Bangkok, but afficionados of the fruit claim the northern type is the best by far. The three main varieties grown all originated in China and still have names evocative of their homeland, Hong Huay, Ow Hia and Gim Yeng.

Litchee farms can be instantly recognized by their lustrous, dark-green, spreading, bushy trees. The flowers are unremarkable, but once the fruits have set, the trees become transformed. At first the bunches resemble handfuls of cotton buds of the palest pastel pink, but as the fruits swell and weigh down the branches with their burden, these buds darken to the rich maroon of the mature crop's thin, rumpled skin. These burgeoning bunches require plentiful water to reach juicy perfection, and the farmers must labour from dawn to dusk during the hot summer days.

Once the fruit has been picked, it must be marketed and eaten within 4 days if its full flavour is to be enjoyed. Although surplus fruit may nowadays be canned to preserve them for the future, nothing can compare with the luxury of cracking the thin russet peel to reveal the heavenly opalescent fruit within. It is no wonder that the Chinese have long considered the litchee a symbol of romance and love, and that the gift of ripe lynchee fruit was considered tantamount to a proposal of marriage. On a more mundane level, the luscious litchee makes very good eating for the health conscious as each fruit contains over 20% of daily human Vitamin C requirement.

The northern litchee crop is picked in the month of May, and there are many festivals to celebrate this glorious harvest. Each province has its own celebration, that is Phayao, festivities in Fang district of Chiangmai, and Chiangrai has a fair. Each festival will feature traditional music and dance associated with the lynchee, competitions between the growers and displays of litchee products.

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