Bunches of lichees all bundled up for sale in Bangkok's farmers market.
The lichee is perhaps the most well known of several fruits from northern Thailand, all having a similar general structure and taste. Without their woody stems attached, the lichee fruit could almost be mistaken for a strawberry. The color and texture of the outer skin is quite similar, although the skin of the lichee is somewhat leathery and inedible. Peeling the skin reveals a white juicy flesh with a single large seed in the middle.
The lichee, like all its relatives, is a seasonal fruit, ripening between May and August. Longans and Rambutan usually peak a few months later. The bulk of Thailand's lichee crop is grown around Chiang Rai. Every year around May, Chiang Rai hosts its own "lichee festival" to celebrate the new season's crop.
In the markets, small stems of the ripe red fruits will usually be bound together with other bunches to form large clusters looking like huge bunches of grapes. These will normally weigh around a kilogram, which when the fruit is in season will set you back around a dollar.
Lichees originated in China, where a Cantonese saying has it that "one lichee equals three torches of fire." This refers to the strong "yang" nature of the fruit. You've probably heard of "yin" and "yang" but you might not know that foods could be classified as "yin" -- associated with the moon and representing feminine nature – or "yang" -- associated with the hot sun and masculine nature. Thus the lichee is thought to "heat" the body, and too much of it could create an "imbalance" in the body's yin and yang.