Longan translates phonetically to "dragon eyes" in Cantonese and Vietnamese and "cat eyes" in a few other Southeast Asian languages. At first one might think this is due to the rough, mottled exterior of this little fruit but the secret to the name lies within. Rarely seen within the US, I was fortunate enough to encounter these strange little fruits on a recent visit to a local flea market where there are a few great stalls featuring some exotic Asian produce.
A member of the Sapindaceae family of trees, longans are relatives of lychees and rambutans. They are grown in the same Southeast Asian lands as their cousins but their origins have been traced to the southern region of China, a bit further north than the fertile tropical breeding grounds of their family members.
The longan doesn't appear edible at first glance. It isn't until you squeeze these tough looking orbs that you start to suspect there might be some viable fruit inside. Peeling back the skin is much like peeling a lychee or a hard-boiled egg. The rind is thick but pliable and breaks off to reveal the dragon's eye inside. The flesh is veined and translucent with a dark seed embedded in its center, giving the appearance of an eyeball, hence the name.
The taste of the translucent longan flesh is a little strange. Whereas the flavors of the lychee and rambutan are wholly sweet and floral, there's a mild tang in the longan. One could aptly describe it as being like a lychee with a hint of sweet onion. Not bad, but this odd note dampened my enthusiasm about finishing the rest of the bunch.
There are some bumpier varieties but mine was essentially smooth with some slight texturing. The minor pickled-onion flavor puts me off wanting to make them a regular part of my repertoire but since my beloved rambutans and lychees are far more expensive, I might be forced to pick up some more of these little snack sized fruits on my next trip to the market.
Then again, if I can get one of these to produce a fruit-bearing tree in a reasonable amount of time, I might just have to get used to the idea of onion flavored fruit.