Eyes on the prize
I was shopping at my favorite supermarket in Brooklyn's Chinatown when I saw a small crowd gathering at the end of an aisle in the expansive produce room. Two men were unloading crates full of bunches of spherical brown fruits on stems and stuffing them into mesh bags as quickly as customers could shove them into their carts. I don't read or speak Mandarin, which I regret on the regular, so I trusted the enthusiasm and wisdom of the masses, waited for a break in the throng, and nabbed a sack of my own.
Away from the fray, I inspected them more closely. I'd never seen a lychee still in its skin in person, but I had a vague idea what they look like, so I was naively confident. At least until I scoured my receipt on the way home: Silkie chicken, black fungus, black wolfberries, longan. The heck? Turns out, a longan is a berry that's from the same family as lychees, and I bought some by accident. But hey, any day I can try out some produce I've never eaten before is a good day, indeed.
Once home, I plucked a longan from its stem, and sliced carefully around the equator with a sharp knife, unaccustomed to the thickness of its skin. It was slightly rough, yet still pliable, like an orange that's been left to sit for a few days too long. It gave way easily to a soft, smooth, almost translucent white orb that looked for all the world like an eyeball. This initial reaction was further compounded when I cut it in half and out popped a round, black, pupil-looking pit. Once the shock wore off and I got Un Chien Andalou off the loop of the nightmare part of my brain, I stuck the pale flesh into my mouth. Lychee-like, indeed, but not ridged on the surface, and a touch less complex in flavor.
It wasn't a disappointment, though—oh no. If I were indeed eating a lychee, I'd want it to shine without much ornamentation. Longans scream out for embellishment in the form of acid, crunchy texture, heat, or umami, so I started playing. Popped out of their husks and frozen, they're glorious in a gin and tonic; a treat in a summer fruit salad alongside watermelon and basil; a shocking surprise sprinkled with hot sauce and salt in a bowl; and a total revelation when they're quickly pickled. Don't fuss about the slicing, either: The skin is thin enough to pop open with a squeeze.
If you're wondering where to find longans, keep your eyes peeled for "dragon eyes" at Asian markets through early September, or just look for the crowd forming in the fruit aisle.