Friday, June 13, 2008

The familiar taste of lychee

Lychee season in Kathmandu is short—"They only last three weeks!" a Canadian friend had told me in between barked haggling with a vendor late on a Friday night—and now, after perhaps 15 days, only the dregs are left. Here you find lychees not so much at the supermarket but in the hands of the dark-skinned fruit pedallers, long branches with dusky green pinnate leaves at one end, a fist in the middle, and at the bottom, now, rough-skinned fruit, either refrigerated brown or bright, tropical, underripe green; or, most commonly, both. By reputation the lychees come either from the Indian state of Bihar or from Bangladesh, but since like many goods in Nepal lychees pass through a minimum of two wholesalers, and because 62 of Nepal's 75 districts claim1 production, figuring their provenance is an uncertain proposition at best.

Biologically lychees are drupes, meaning that they have an exocarp, a skin; a mesocarp, a flesh under the exocarp; and a hard endocarp around the seeds. That is, they are similar to mangos, apricots, cherries, coffee (a fruit in which we discard the exocarp and mesocarp and consume the endocarp), peaches, nectarines, and pistachios. Among Nepali lychees, the rind—which should be a gaudy-lipstick red—is the exocarp, the fruit the mesocarp, and the nut-brown pit the endocarp. When the seeds germinate, they look vaguely reminiscent of an acorn on a small yellow string, though lacking the acorn's ceremonial bunting at top.

I was first introduced to the taste of lychee through friends of mine in high school, who would occasionally bring out small plastic cups of lychee jelly, the fruit surrounding a tiny asymmetrical chunk of coconut and a few drop of separated lychee juice at the top, now banned as a choking hazard2—this wasn't so long ago at all—but then, as now, a treat. Later I dated a woman from a Taiwanese family, and gorged myself: the fruit, even as a candy in an uncomfortable superfluity of packaging, was delicious.

Nevertheless, the familiar taste of lychee was never all that familiar: While I have eaten many lychee jellies since, and lychee ice cream, lychee custard, flan-like, lychee smoothies and lassis, and dried lychee rolled up in egg roll wrappers, to my remembrance I had never eaten fresh lychee before coming to Nepal. (And if I don't recall, and no one else does, did it happen? But I digress.) Consequently I have no base of experience to refer to savoring of each individual lychee to; the subtleties that separate the best from the very good—subtleties learned from a long chain of memories and their intersection with, their partial creation of, expectation.

So when I say, as I say now, that the best lychees here have the faint, familiar taste of citrus, just as the best wheels of pecorino sardo and parmigiano reggiano do, you'll understand that by “best” I mean “my favorite.” That neither the gelatinous, grape-like texture nor the first taste, the fore-taste, that rises high from the front of the tongue to the soft palette, change much between fresh lychee squeezed out of its skin and preserved lychee squeezed out hemispherical plastic containers with “this product is unbelievably delicious” written on them. As long as the lychee are juicy, as long as you are in danger of losing the best, most refreshing drops of their juice when you tear the unexpectedly brittle rind with a close-cut fingernail, they are wonderful.

But you may think or—stronger—may know that the lychees I am currently enamored with, the ones that shortly will again disappear, are inadequate, sub-par. Not just in a de gustibus not est disputandum way either, but in a way that even I may agree with.

When I lived in Rome, for instance, I had a rollicking dinner in a little trattoria near Hadrian's Mausoleum3 that was recommended, as I recall, in the City Secrets: Rome guidebook. With the meal, we had a bottle, perhaps two, of cheap Orvieto, the semi-famous white wine from the nearby town of the same name. It's this wine, and the cheer, that I remembered best afterwards; and I went to the GS supermarket a few days later and found the same bottle, delightedly. But rather than brightly acidic and balanced, and slightly carbonated, the wine was flat and boring, mouth-drying to the point of nearly being puckering. Nor was it corked, for the cork was made of plastic which, at that time and in that country, was a very telling sign.

This is a common sort of story among oenophiles, who see tend to see it as a reminder that context matters, and this is very true. But so too experience. That we had never had Orvieto before, and indeed had drank too little wine, however sensitive or not our palettes, to render an opinion that later would not seem either embarrassing or fitfully naïve to us is not the result of context but the result of the confluence of context and experience.

Experience, too, does not just solely the literal experience of one body over time, but also the absorbed and understood cultural context that judgments of taste exist in. It is this context that I feel my life lacks, that it misses, here in Nepal. I cannot ask about the subtle gradations of the taste of lychee because I lack the language skills to understand the answer, even should I research the vocabulary. Further, I am not sure that a Nepali gustatory literacy exists: Gourmandism is a outgrowth of affluence, after all, and Nepal is not an affluent country. Even those parts that are affluent, too, tend to take more to Western ideas and ideals than to those indigenous to Nepal.

Does this matter? I am not sure, but like a tickle of evaporation from the nape of the neck I can feel the lack.

1The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has a mildly interesting report on lychee cultivation in Nepal, but like all reports here any factoid should be taken with a large dose of skepticism. For instance, the government announced a 2007 (or perhaps 2064--the past Nepali year) per capita income of $450, about 10% higher than the year before, even though no census has been conducted since (I believe) the 1980s and (I'm certain) no one has any idea how many Nepalis there actually are, even within a margin of error of 30%.

2 Still available—and recommended!—at the 99 Ranch chain of Taiwanese supermarkets-cum-office-malls—a chain that pretty much everyone I know calls “Ranch 99” because of unclear signage in Albany, California.

3 More commonly known as Castel Sant'Angelo, the Mausoleum is a towering structure just on the west side of the Tiber river. It also has a major road directly in front of it, so pictures of it tend to show not just red-brown brick but Smart Cars and Vespas, as well as smoking Italians, African-Italian immigrants, and tourists looking at faux-designer handbags.

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