Monday, April 16, 2007

Dr. Pongsol SOLves the PONG (of durians)

I see that Dr. Songpol Somers of the Horticultural Research Centre of Thailand has advanced the state of the scientific art by breeding a variety of durian fruit that has a mild smell.

Durian trees grow in south-east Asian countries (Malaysia, Thailand, The Philippines, etc), and I believe that their unique fruit come to ripeness in the first half of the year (from February onwards). These days, the whole fruits are available around the world, following the Asian diaspora, once to be found only in Asian food shops but more recently even in supermarkets.

The accompanying picture of a durian showing two whole fruits plus an opened one comes from Wikipedia and (as the nearby coin indicates) it's about the size of a football (ovoid shape). Here are other good descriptions from Answers.com and search.com. Durians are quite heavy (5 kilograms or more), with a hard spiky shell or husk that you definitely wouldn't want to fall on your head from the tree! The shell can be prised apart into segments, and in each segment lies the treasure: two or three seed sacks with an easily-broken outer membrane holding soft flesh that has about the consistency of a custard apple. The inedible, hard seed is several centimetres long (an inch or so).

When fresh, the flesh has the most unique of tastes, with some of the elements of vanilla and similar exotic flavors.

The taste is hard to put into words. I suppose the same could be said for any flavor: you've got to try it yourself to understand and appreciate it. Suffice to say that some people will never take this step, since the opened fruit has a most distinctive, strong aroma. Even the unopened fruit can be detected from a distance!

Some people cannot tolerate the smell. The most common saying is that it "tastes like heaven but smells like hell." The search.com article (under the heading Flavour and Odor) has a couple of other quotations, one of the more notable being that of author Anthony Burgess: "like eating vanilla custard in a latrine."

I first became aware of the existence of durian decades before, when as a youth I read about it in one of (probably) Anthony Burgess' books about Asia. During my business trips for IBM in various Asian countries (during the 1980s and early 1990s) I was always on the lookout for durian, and eventually encountered it, first in Singapore then later in Hong Kong and elsewhere.

My first taste was tentative, but I didn't find it at all bad and soon became a devotee. I recall ordering durian for dessert at the Newton Circus outdoor food market in Singapore. I asked for it to be brought to my table after I had finished the main course. When the fruit stall vendor served it to me all of the Americans, Australians and British tourists sharing my table quickly moved as far away from me as they could, right to the other end of the table! There's no accounting for taste, as they say. When I started bringing durian home here in Australia, my wife (and kids) had exactly the same reaction as the tourists, but now she enjoys it too without being in the least put off by the smell.

After several trips, I started buying whole durians and having them wrapped in several layers of newspaper inside two or three plastic bags. Then I would sneak them into my hotel and jam them into the refrigerator in my room, hoping that by keeping them cold as well as tightly wrapped the smell wouldn't permeate. This seemed to work, since I didn't ever get a reprimand from the hotel staff (perhaps they knew and were exceptionally understanding). I eventually was able to do the same in Hong Kong. ... Ah, those were the days.

Thse days it's easy to buy whole durians -- mainly imported from Thailand -- here in Melbourne, not only is Asian food shops but even in the local Safeway-Woolworths supermarket.

After more than a year of abstinence, I recently polished off one and must say that I enjoyed it immensely. (During one of my trips to Asia, one of the locals expressed great surprise that I enjoyed wolfing down large servings of durian. He warned me that eating too much was supposed to make you feel "heaty", a term I have never encountered before or since and can only guess that some people feel hot after eating durian.)

SMD - Smell of Mass Destruction? ...
I didn't ever try carrying my durian onto the MRT (Mass Rapid Transport) subway in Singapore. That would have been going one step too far, since the Singaporeans are well known for their strict interpretation of rules and laws including those for public cleanliness and order (think cigarette butts and chewing gum). I didn't want to risk being fined or maybe even locked up just for giving in to my passion for durian. They even have a special sign at MRT entrances warning you not to even try doing it (see picture)!

(Click to view a larger image)

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