Food & Beverage : Fruits

Longan a sweet dragon eye exotic fruit

Text and photography by Loreen Neville
March 3rd 2010

The longan fruit formerly known as Euphoria longans, grows in cluster attached twigs and when shelled, reveals a sweet juicy transparent flesh encasing an enamel lacquered like black eye-ball seed, which is round and hard. When halved, the fruit resembles an eye pupil and is often called, 'dragon eye' from the translated Cantonese word. The fruit is botanically termed as Dimocarpus longan from the Sapindaceae variety or family. The Longan tree grows up to a maximum of about 67 meters in height, requires sandy soil and cannot survive in temperatures below 4.5 degrees Celsius or 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Other names tagged to the Dimocarpus longan-sapindaceae varies from the countries and regions the fruit is cultivated at. We take for example Thailand, depending on the region and variety; there are many names to Longans. They are called, lamyai pa, Biew Kiew a species that requires a cooler climate to flower well, Diamond river or Phetsakon a species that can thrive in tropical areas and Sri Chompoo. In Hawaii, the fruit is known as Kohala, Leng-keng by the Indonesians, Longana in Spain, longanier and oeil de dragon in France, Mein in Cambodia, lam nhai or nam nhai in Laos and nhan in Vietnam. Nonetheless, the common international term for identifying the fruit is Longan (Dimocarpus longan- Sapindaceae).

Dimocarpus Longan is not mata kucing or cat's eye

It is also relevant to note and to know, that the Dimocarpus longan-sapindaceae species has often been called "Mata Kucing or cat's eye. But this is improper information passed on through the generation especially in Malaysia and Indonesia. Both the Longan fruit and the Mata kucing or cat's eye, may very well look alike, however they are definitely different in species.

The Dimocarpus longan is the sapindaceae species while the cat's eye or mata kucing is the malesianus species. The malesianus variety is a subspecies of the longan and also adapts very well in tropical climates. The mata kucing or malesianus longan skin is also darker in color and the fruit is smaller in size. The mata kucing flesh is more translucent or transparent while the seeds are slightly smaller than the longan. The sweetness of the fruit is also different. Therefore, we can conclude scientifically that the Dimocarpus longan- sapindaceae is not 'mata kucing' which is botanically labelled as Dimocarpus longan var. malesianus.

Longans are cultivated in China in the provinces of Guangxi, Guangdong, Fujian, Sichuan, Yunnan and Hainan and can also be found in central and southern Taiwan Province of China. Thailand Longan cultivars produce the fruit in mass production for the export markets which is their top income earner. Longan cultivars in Thailand are found mainly in the northern provinces of Lamphun, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. Longans are also farm produced in Vietnam along the Mekong delta, the northern region and the southeast region. Longans was introduced into Florida from southern China by the United States Department of Agriculture in 1903, the fruit however, never became popular except in Hawaii.

Considered as highly perishable fruits and to keep the fruits shelf-life longer, longans were also canned, made into drinks, dried and persevered. The most popular are the canned fruits complimented with sweet syrup often sold in super markets around the globe, sold definitely as a dessert dish in most Chinese restaurants served chilled with almonds and processed bean curd. The Chinese can also makes liqueur by macerating the longan flesh in alcohol. Also as part of the Chinese cuisine are dried longans popularly called guìyu´n cook into soups. The Longans can be dried with or without the pericarp. When the arils (flesh) are dried, it turns a dark brown or black color and has a interesting smoky flavour.

When in season, Longans can also observed on the streets, tied in bunches, priced by the kilos and sold cheaper by the side walk vendors.

Nutrional and medicinial benefits of Longan.

Longans per 100 grams has a composition of Carbohydrate- 16-25 g, Fat-0.1-0.5 g, Protein-1 g, Iron- 0.3-1.2 mg, Phosphorous-6-42 mg, Calcium-2-10 mg, Vitamin A-28 IU, Vitamin B 1-0.04 mg, Vitamin B2- 0.07 mg, Niacin-0.6 mg and Vitamin C- 6-8 mg.

The Chinese and the Vietnamese, renowned for their traditional herbal cures includes both fresh and dried longans on their list of remedies. In most Asian countries, dried longan flesh can be bought in Chinese Medicinal shops. The dried flesh turned into a tonic, is a cure for insomia and neurasthenic neurosis.

Fresh longan fruit apparently reduces fever while the leaf which contains quercetin is used for its antioxidant and antiviral properties, to treat allergies, mild cases of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. The seeds, I am told, counters heavy sweating in humans because it contains natural substances of saponin, tannin and fat.

Nothing is thrown away

Both the seeds and the rind or skin, of the longan, can be burned for fuel and due to its saponin substance are made into soapberries. The seeds can also be dried and crushed to produce foam then used as shampoo. The Longan tree, wood is used to make smaller furniture or made into poles. The inner wood of the tree is red, hard and easy to be polished.

Yet with all its sweetness and medicinal goodness, the longan fruit, fresh or dried has a long way to go into becoming a household name. The popularity of the fruit has been left stagnant in China, Thailand, Singapore and some parts of Vietnam. The Longan fruit hay day is during the Chinese New year festival but it still looses out to the small mandarin oranges. In Indonesia, the longan or leng-keng is not really a popular fruit. It is more seen than eaten. Supermarkets like Carrefour and Giant can be accredited for often displaying and selling the longan fruit in off and on season.

When in season, Longans are part of my family's fruit diet placed in a porcelain bowl left on the dinning table. So far, in my observation in trying to introduce all types of fruits, for educational and health purposes, to my teenage daughter, (the now younger generation) she did not try the longan. Hmmm, back to the drawing board!

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