For chef Mark Noguchi, born and raised in Oahu, Hawaii, lychee signals the start of summer.
"Once you start to see the lychee come out, you know summer is here," he said of the fruit, which he described as "a citrusy banana."
Lychee, native to Southeast Asia, is a rough-skinned, red fruit with a sweet, fleshy interior. While China is the top producer of lychee, the fruit can also be found in subtropical climates of India, South Africa and the U.S.
The definitive flavor of a lychee is up for debate. Some say the fruit tastes similar to a grape, with notes of floral, while others liken it to a watermelon or pear flavor.
Kaye Family Farms, located on the Hamakua Coast of Hawaii Island, has been cultivating its lychee orchard for more than two decades.
"Lychee start out on the tree green, hard, and covered with sharp prickly bumps called scales," Springer Kaye, owner and operator of Kaye Family Farms, told TODAY Food. "Kaimana Lychee, the most popular lychee grown for market in Hawaii, is ready to eat when the color is a uniform rose-red and the scales flatten out, at least around the 'shoulders' of the lychee. The bottom may stay a bit bumpy."
When ripe, lychee can be peeled — sort of like an orange — and eaten right off the tree. Once peeled, the entire fruit will appear white and circular and features a small, dark-colored pit.
Kaye said an easy way to determine ripe lychee is to make sure there is no yellow peaking through between the scales, and there is just a little "give" when you squeeze the lychee.
"Some older varieties stay quite prickly, so you might remember having sore fingers from eating a big sack of lychee as a child," she shared. "If you have the kind that stays prickly, just look for uniform color, just a little give, and taste a few — you know, just to be sure."
Noguchi shared that eating lychee is a little bit of a family tradition.
"My father loves (lychee) when it’s just cold and then he just peels it and eats it," Noguchi told TODAY, adding that his late mother loved the fruit, too. "My mom used to peel them and put them in vodka. In the back of the fridge, we have one more Mason jar. That’s the last of mom’s gift to us."
The tradition continues with Noguchi's two daughters, who have been brought up with the fruit from a young age.
"Our girls will go through lychee like a fruit bat," he said.
While lychee can be enjoyed on its own, the fruit can also be incorporated into recipes — for example, to add some sweetness into a savory sauce for stir-fries — or frozen for any-time-of-day snacking.
"Leave them in the shell and put in an airtight glass canning jar or double freezer bag," Kaye shared. "Just defrost slightly and eat as you would fresh lychee."
James Beard award-winning chef Ming Tsai told TODAY that in Chinese culture, the lychee is considered a symbol of romance and love. It is also thought to be beneficial to place dried lychees under the marriage bed as a wish for many children.
Tsai's Lychee-Champagne Granita is a simple and sweet refresher that blends lychee, lemon and Champagne.
"Don’t let the new-ness of peeling a strange fruit deter you," Noguchi shared. "Lychee, whether it’s from the side of the road or at a farmer’s market — it's going to be good."