THAILAND IS BLESSED with a large variety of wonderful and delicious fruits which abound in different seasons of the year. And May is the season of the delectable lichee, or lynchee - as the Thai's call it. This juicy, refreshing fruit combines the subtle aroma of good quality grapes with it's own uniquely delicious flavor. The lynchee is known to have been cultivated in China for the past 4,000 years, but made its first reported appearance in northern Thailand in the early 18th century.
Lynchee is very exacting in its climactic and soil requirements. It prefers a rich, wet and acid soil for ideal growth, and requires cool winter air for bountiful flowering and fruiting, followed by a hot and humid season for good growth and fruit bearing. For these reasons, lynchee is grown almost exclusively in the northern provinces of Chiangmai, Chiangrai and Phayao, where these conditions are to be found. Some lynchee is grown in the Northeast when the conditions are right, and there is a heat-tolerant variety grown in Amphawa district of Samut Songkhram, west of Bangkok, but lynchee aficionados will tell you the northern type is the best by far. The three main varieties grown all originated in China, and have names reflective of their homeland: Hong Huay, Ow Hia and Gim Jeng.
Lynchee farms can be readily 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 fruit bunches resemble handfuls of cotton buds of a very pale pink. But as the fruits swell and weigh down the branches, these buds darken to the rich maroon-to-brown skin of the mature crop. During this growth phase, the trees require a plentiful supply of water to reach juicy perfection.
The thin, rumpled outer skin conceals a white, juicy, succulent pulp which surrounds a single shiny brown seed. Once the fruit has been picked, it must be marketed and eaten within four days if its full flavor is to be enjoyed. Surplus fruit may be canned or dried for future use, but nothing quite compares with the delicacy of taste and texture of the fresh fruit. The Chinese have long considered the lynchee to be a symbol of love and romance; a gift of ripe lynchee fruit was considered tantamount to a proposal of marriage. On a less romantic level, the delicious lynchee makes very good eating for the health conscious, since the fruit is high in natural sugars, and one fruit alone contains over 20% of the daily human Vitamin C requirement.
The northern lynchee crop is picked in the month of May, and, as is typical here in the North, there are many festivals to celebrate this glorious harvest. Each province has its own celebration: a festival in Phayao, festivities in the Fang District of Chiangmai, and a fair in Chiangrai. Each festival will feature traditional music and dance, competitions among growers and displays of lynchee products.
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