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Jan 30, 2012

Odorless durian raises a stink

Thomas Fuller

The International Herald Tribune
Friday, March 30, 2007

TUNG PHAEN, Thailand: You can take the sugar out of soft drinksand
the fat from junk food.
But eliminate the pungent odor from the world's smelliest fruit
and brace for a major international controversy. After three decades of
research, a Thai government scientist working at an orchard here near the
Cambodian border says he has managed to take the stink out of durian. The
spiky Southeast Asian fruit, variously described by its detractors as smelling
like garbage, moldy cheese or rotting fish, is banned from many hotels,
airlines and the Singapore subway.
But durian lovers, and there are many in Asia, are convinced that, like fine
French cheeses, the worse the smell, the better the taste. Songpol Somsri,
one of the world's leading experts on the fruit, crossed more than 90
varieties, many of them found only in the wild, and came up with what he
calls Chantaburi No. 1, after his home province and the location of the
research center. The specially bred durian smells as inoffensive as a banana,
Songpol says. It will please Thai consumers, he believes, and might also help
broaden the acceptability of the durian, unlocking the door to American and
European customers who, like an increasing number of Thais, would reject a
fruit that smells like last season's unwashed gym socks.
"Most Thais don't like too strong a smell, except some old people," Songpol
said in an interview at his office cluttered with reports on durian DNA
structure (he has not yet pinpointed the malodorous gene). Durian lovers are
horrified by the prospect of a no-smell durian. They complain that the fruit,
which is green or sometimes yellowish and shaped like a rugby ball, is being
homogenized just like the insipid tomatoes bred to look pretty behind
cellophane on supermarket shelves. "Oh, no, this is the beginning of the
end," said Bob Halliday, a Bangkok-based food writer, when told about the
odorless durian.
The fruit has not yet been officially unveiled by
Thailand's Ministry of Agriculture but will obtain final
approval in the coming weeks, officials say. "Making
a non-smelly durian is like a thornless rose," Halliday
said. "It's really cutting out the soul." The no-smell
durian is even more mystifying to those who live in
Malaysia, Singapore or Indonesia, where durians are
prized for their odor and priced accordingly.
"The smell must come out from the durian," said Chang Peik Seng,
owner of the Bao Sheng durian farm on
the Malaysian island of Penang, as he emphasized the "must."
"You cannot hide the smell." It took several minutes to explain the
concept to Chang, who ultimately concluded that an odorless durian
would flop in his country.

"If the durian doesn't have a strong smell the customer only pays one-third
the price," he said. (Songpol says he has developed a separate durian that
might please Malaysians and Indonesians: Chantaburi No. 3 is pungent, but
the fruit only begins to smell three days after being picked, allowing for
odorless transport.) There is probably no other fruit that elicits such passion
and revulsion. The litany of legends and myths surrounding what Malaysians
call the "king of fruits" is long and colorful.


Durians are said to be an aphrodisiac: When the durians fall, the sarongs fly
up, goes a Malay saying. But woe to those who overindulge. Rarely does
durian season - which in central Thailand begins in April and continues till
June - pass without newspapers somewhere in Southeast Asia reporting a
durian death. The fruit, which is rich in carbohydrates, protein, fat and
sulfurous compounds (thus the smell), is said here to be "heaty," and can
therefore be deadly for those with high blood pressure, according to Wilailak
Srisura, a nutritionist at Thailand's Department of Health.
Tradition also dictates that mixing alcohol with durian should be avoided at all
costs. "Durian makes you hot and alcohol makes you hot, so it's double heat,"
said Somchai Tadchang, the owner of a durian orchard on Kret, an island on
the Chao Phraya river north of Bangkok, where special Gan Yao (long stem)
durians sell for upwards of $40 a fruit, the equivalent of several days' wages
for a laborer here. Songpol says he has not found a scientific reason why
durian and alcohol are incompatible, but would not dare consume both at the
same time. He claims to have recently cut back on his personal durian
consumption for health reasons ("Fat!" his secretary exclaims), but his work
requires him to taste 1,000 durians each season at the research orchard here.
Born and reared in a durian orchard, Songpol started studying the fruit in 1977
as a graduate student in horticulture.

Worried that some durian varieties were disappearing as cultivation was
becoming increasingly commercialized, Songpol collected dozens of
varieties from around Thailand and planted them at the Chantaburi
Horticultural Research Center, which now serves as sort of a Thai durian seed
bank. The center is a horticultural Eden with flower beds and streams
rimming the rows of experimental durian trees that are shadowed by nearby
low-lying, jungle-covered mountains. Songpol experimented with hundreds
of different combinations before discovering Chantaburi No. 1, a cross
between the Montong and Chanee varieties, the most common found in
Thailand today.

It's difficult to believe that any durian would be completely without odor,
especially after being cracked open. This year's harvest is not yet ripe, but
those who have smelled and tasted last year's say the fruit had a very faint
odor. Saowanee Srisuma, the caretaker of the durian orchard here, says it is
the least-smelling durian she has encountered in her 10 years of work on the
farm. Suchart Vichitrananda, the director of Horticulture Research Institute
where Songpol works, says Chantaburi No. 1 does not smell but he hesitates
when describing the taste. "I can't say it's better than the original durian, but
it'll do." Songpol's plan is to replace the Chanee, which farmers have a
difficult time selling because of its stronger smell, and plant one million
seedlings of the no-smell durian over the next five years, covering about
6,400 hectares, or 15,810 acres, an area slightly larger than Manhattan.
Exporters are enthusiastic.

"It's a very good idea," said Kiattisak
Tangchareonsutthichai, owner of Thai Hong, a company that exports
about 2.5 million kilograms, or 2,755 tons, of durian a year to China.
"It's an opportunity for us to export more to new markets that don't like
the strong smell."

But the fear of many durian lovers is that the odorless variety is just another
step toward the erosion of durian culture. Durians are a social fruit,
traditionally sold on the roadside and eaten by groups of friends sitting on
cheap plastic stools, the ubiquitous furniture of Southeast Asian outdoor food
stalls. Each fruit is analyzed in the same way that wine is sniffed and
discussed at a Parisian dinner party. Also like wine, durian culture dictates
that if the customer tastes it and does not like it, he can send it back. As the
region modernizes, durian culture, too, is changing.

Durians are increasingly sold cut up under plastic wrap in supermarkets. In
Thailand, which has aggressively commercialized the fruit, farmers specialize
in Montong, a sweet, almost saccharine, and easy-to-eat variety. Thai farmers
use chemicals to coax durian trees to bear fruit in the off-season, so Montong
are available year-round and are sold around the world. Thailand last year
sold about 50 million durians abroad, worth about 3.2 billion baht, or $90
million. Durian traditions are perhaps strongest in Malaysia, Singapore and
Indonesia. Malay durians, many of them known only as "kampung," or
country village varieties, are typically more wild, unpredictable, sometimes
bitter and almost always pungent. "To anyone who doesn't like durian, it
smells like a bunch of dead cats," said Halliday, the food writer. "But as you
get to appreciate durian, the smell is not offensive at all. It's attractive. It
makes you drool like a mastiff." Thailand's Montong, by contrast, has a largely
uniform, bubble gum- like flavor.
The growing rift between Thailand and its southern neighbors is probably
best summed up by the way the fruit is harvested: In Thailand's more
efficient, standardized and productive system, durians are cut from trees and
sometimes frozen for export. Malaysian and Indonesian farmers wait until the
durians fall, often setting up nets to catch the fruit to avoid its cracking on
impact.

The nets also ensure that the durians, which grow on tall trees, do not fall on
someone's head, a painful prospect given the fruit's extremely sharp spikes.
Songpol says he is also trying to breed a thornless durian by crossin
varieties from the southern Philippines. "I hope in the next two to
three years we will get a flower," Songpol said.
For lovers of durian - which gets its name from "duri,"
the Malay word for thorn - this is too much to bear.
"You might as well be eating watermelon," Halliday said.

Pornnapa Wongakanit contributed reporting from Bangkok.