The Longan is a tropical tree native to southern China. The tree is very sensitive to frost. It is also found in Indonesia and Southeast Asia. It is also called guiyuan (桂圆) in Chinese, lengkeng in Indonesia, mata kucing in Malaysia, and quả nhãn in Vietnamese. The longan (“dragon eyes”) is so named because of the fruit’s resemblance to an eyeball when it is shelled (the black seed shows through the translucent flesh like a pupil/iris).
The fruit is edible, and is often used in East Asian soups, snacks, desserts, and sweet-and-sour foods. They are round with a thin, brown-coloured inedible shell. The flesh of the fruit, which surrounds a big, black seed, is translucent white, soft, and juicy.
When I first arrived in Saigon, my grandpa’s younger brother Ong Ti stopped by my office to say hello. He arrived with a smile and huge bag of nhãn as a welcome gift. The nhãn were very dusty upon arrival, but I washed them thoroughly in water, removed them from their stems, and refrigerated them uncovered in bowls. For the following three weeks, The Astronomer and I were able to snack on nhãn to our hearts’ content. After years of eating canned nhãn coated in heavy syrup, it was a welcomed treat to finally taste the real thing.