Samui Wining & Dining
Creating A Stink

Love it or hate it, the durian fruit is sure to grab your attention. One way or the other!

 

9Oh my God! What’s that disgusting smell?” Over the next month or two you may hear this said a few times on Samui as you simultaneously detect a somewhat strange odour. Well, stranger than normal. And before you turn up your nose and run, take a moment to follow it. What you’ll discover is a fruit. In fact, what’s widely regarded in this part of the world as the ‘King of Fruits’ – the mighty durian.

 

Revered all around South-east Asia, it’s distinctive for its large size, unique smell and formidable thorn-covered husk. It can grow up to 30 centimetres in length and 15 centimetres in diameter and weigh between one and three kilograms. Its shape ranges from oblong to round, the colour of its husk from green to brown, and its flesh anything from a pale yellow through to red, depending on the species. Durian is an Indonesian word which means ‘thorny fruit’ and it does resemble a ball of spikes and can be just as deadly if thrown at someone.

 

Originally native to Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia, Thailand is currently the number one major exporter of durians, growing 781,000 tonnes of the world’s total harvest of 1,400,000 tonnes. Chantaburi province in Thailand is responsible for half of the durian production in the country and an annual festival is held there every year in honour of the fruit. Durians are catching on in other parts of the world primarily because Thailand now produces, on a large scale, exportable durian fruit of the Mon Thong variety. It’s the only durian variety that’s suitable for shipping (usually by plane) to far-away destinations because it can be harvested weeks before they have fully ripened, can be stored for several weeks and has no tendency to rot prematurely.

 

Classical varieties have to ripen on the tree and are harvested only once they’ve fallen off on their own. They are then best eaten within six hours, or, at least, within a day. After that they tend to lose some flavour. In recent times, Khun Songpol Somsri, a Thai government scientist, crossbred more than ninety varieties of durian to create Chantaburi No.1, a cultivar without the characteristic odour, which is awaiting final approval from the Ministry of Agriculture. Another hybrid, Chantaburi No.3, develops the odour about three days after the fruit is picked, which enables an odourless transport yet satisfies consumers who prefer the pungent odour. As a result of the efforts of Thai agriculturists, durian fruit is now exported to North America, with Western Canada a major destination as Vancouver has a substantial population of Asian immigrants.

 

So how is the mighty durian best described? Well, the chef, writer and television host, Anthony Bourdain, summed it up rather succinctly, “Its taste can only be described as ... indescribable; something you will either love or despise. Your breath will smell as if you’d been French-kissing your dead grandmother.” Not descriptive enough? Travel and food writer Richard Sterling’s opinion was, “Its odour is best described as pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock. It can be smelled from yards away. Despite its great local popularity, the raw fruit is forbidden from many establishments, such as hotels, subways and airports, including public transportation in South-east Asia.” And he’s right, during the durian season you’ll see large signs on public buildings and in hotels on Samui requesting visitors not to bring the fruit into the building.

 

Bourdain is also right in that you’ll either love it or hate it. Other comparisons have been made with the civet, sewage, stale vomit, skunk spray and used surgical swabs. The wide range of descriptions for the odour of durian may have a great deal to do with the variability of durian odour itself. Durians from different species or clones can have significantly different aromas. And the strong odour can be detected half a mile away by animals and is extremely appetising to a variety of them, including squirrels, mouse-deer, pigs, orang-utan, elephants, and even carnivorous tigers. Whilst some of these animals eat the fruit and dispose of the seed under the parent plant, others swallow the seed with the fruit and then transport it some distance before excreting, with the seed being dispersed as a result. It’s believed the strong smell, possibly reminiscent of rotting meat, is nature’s way of ensuring the fruit is eaten by larger animals and the seed spread around for re-growth. If so, it’s very clever.

 

It’s not all negativity though; durian contains a high amount of sugar, vitamin C, potassium, and the serotonergic amino acid tryptophan, and is a good source of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. South-east Asian folk beliefs, as well as traditional Chinese medicine, consider the durian fruit to have warming properties liable to cause excessive sweating. The traditional method to counteract this is to pour water into the empty shell of the fruit after the pulp has been consumed and drink it. An alternative method is to eat the durian in accompaniment with mangosteen, which is considered to have cooling properties. Pregnant women or people with high blood pressure are usually advised not to consume durian.

 

Another common local belief is that the durian is harmful when eaten with coffee or alcoholic beverages. Several medical investigations on the validity of this belief have been conducted with varying conclusions. A study by the University of Tsukuba found that the fruit’s high sulphur content caused the body to inhibit the activity of aldehyde dehydrogenise, causing a 70% reduction in the body’s ability to clear toxins.

 

If you can’t bring yourself to eat some of the fruit then you can buy candies and dried sweets made from it. Around this time of year they’ll be sold in local market stalls. Should you be brave enough to try some then you may well enjoy it. Just remember to gargle with some mouthwash afterwards before attempting to speak with anyone up close. That strange odour you detected earlier from some distance away is now inside of you. And it’s looking for an escape route!

 

Johnny Paterson

 


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