I’d like to introduce you to the Soapberry family (or the Sapindaceae family as they were known before their name was unceremoniously Anglicized by an Ellis Island functionary). It’s a big family, including Maple, Horse-Chestnut, Pitomba, and the eponymous Soapberry. By the way, aren’t you glad you’re not named Soapberry Soapberry?
Today we’re going to meet two members of this eclectic family: Lychee and Rambutan. Lychee is a small fruit with a firm red skin that is slightly spiny. Inside is a juicy white fruit that tastes a bit like a flowery grape, and a large smooth pit. The texture is also similar to that of a grape. But whatever you do, don’t mention this similarity to Lychee. It takes great offense at the suggestion that it could be related to the grape in any way. Personally, I don’t believe its vociferous denials. I think that way back when, a bunch of grapes got tired of being eaten, so they decided to bulk up, grow a thick skin and take on a new name that sounded nothing like “grape”. A fat lot of good that did them; lychee-flavored snacks are everywhere. There are lychee juice boxes, lychee candies, lychee gelatin cups, and lychee gumdrops. In fact, I think lychees might just be Asia’s hazelnut (and as we’ve learned, hazelnuts are Europe’s peanut — or Europe’s kudzu). Those grapes thought they had a good plan, with their spiny skin and giant girth, but you know what they say about the best-laid plans of grapes and hazelnuts.
Every family has a hairy cousin, and when it comes to the Soapberry family, that role is filled by Rambutan. Rambutan looks quite a bit like Lychee on the inside, and has a more subtle flavor. The difference is on the outside, where Rambutan looks less like a tropical fruit and more like something that fell to Earth from parts unknown. It may have even come from the same place as those evil chestnuts, but the chestnuts seem tame in comparison. I think I could safely flee an onslaught of chafed chestnuts, but I wouldn’t want to take my chances against a regiment of rampaging rambutans. The hairy disguise has helped the rambutan to avoid the fate of the lychee, but rambutans are still widely consumed in spite of their alien appearance. Remember that next time you think you can solve all of your problems by growing a scruffy beard and building a cabin in the woods.
I hope you’ve enjoyed your brief encounter with the Soapberry family. I also invited Guinip, Ackee, and Korlan, but Guinip wouldn’t come if Rambutan was going to be there, and Korlan just had a huge argument with Lychee. Ackee mumbled something about the Federal Bureau of Foreign Culinary Relations and hung up the phone. I’m telling you, it’s like a Soapberry soap opera in that family!