It sounds like it's too good to be true. But Songpol Somsri, a Thai government scientist, has successfully eliminated the offensive smell from durian and may soon make signs like the one above obsolete. The odorless variety, Chantaburi No. 1, and similar subsequent varieties are poised to hit Thai markets by 2013 or 2014. North American and European markets, where Somsri expects to make significant inroads for the controversial fruit, are expected to follow afterward. Whether it turns into a smashing success remains to be seen, however, because this new durian is practically soulless, say its detractors.
Durian connoisseurs generally believe that greater pungency means greater taste. Up to a point, that is — after all, rotten fruit is rotten fruit.
And there must be something to it because in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia, where durians are also popular, a durian's position on the stink-o-meter and its price correlate strongly; the stronger the smell, the pricier the durian. The most expensive durian can sell for more than $40 — each.
In those countries farmers have taken a different approach to growing durian. Stateside, we might refer to them as "artisanal" growers. They take their time growing their durian. Instead of rushing them off to market, they allow their fruit to ripen to the point of falling off the trees before selling them, sometimes resulting in superior flavor. Sometimes is the operative word here — much like growing heirloom tomatoes, growing wild varieties of durian also leads to inconsistent results. But when the results are spectacular, they really are something special, with a flavor that commercialized varieties can't match.
And when customers are passionate about durian, they'll do anything to get the best.
Stanley Ho, the billionaire who basically built Macau, the Vegas of Southeast Asia, once sent one of his own private planes to pick up 88 durians — the number eight is considered lucky in Chinese culture; the more eight's the better, but even Ho probably couldn't eat 888 ripe durians by himself, so he had to settle for 88. (What a way to get around travel restrictions.)
In contrast, Thailand is known for what we would call "industrial growers." And this highlights the major divide in the debate over durian. There, durians are commonly cut from the tree before they're ready and then are usually frozen. The focus there is on exporting the fruit, and such practices promote the fruit's longevity and make it possible to transport the fruit without causing too much of a stink. Sound familiar, anyone? Yes, it's pretty much what happened to the tomato.
Others think this is just a natural progression.
The loss of the communal aspect of eating a durian began a long time ago when durian began to be sold pre-shelled in supermarkets in Southeast Asia, behind the anesthetizing veil of plastic wrap. Since a durian is much too large for one person to eat, people would often gather together to share one, cracking the fruit open together and enjoying the spoils of their labor. (Opening a durian is no easy task, after all, but if someone's already done the work for you, surely you can enjoy it by yourself.) And for some people, the moment individually wrapped portions of durian appeared on store shelves, durian had already lost its soul.
Prior to his breakthrough, Somsri had dedicated his life to the durian. Thirty years passed before the horticulturalist met with success in 2007. He crossed more than 90 varieties before arriving at the perfect mix of the Montong variety, a highly commercialized variety available worldwide and known for its artificially sweet, candy-like flavor, and the Chanee variety, the more odiferous of the two. It sounds like a recipe for a really sweet, really smelly durian, but luckily for Somsri, it actually resulted in a mellow mix.
So, what's Somsri's next controversial project? He's tackling durian's next off-putting problem by developing a durian that has no spikes — and since the name for durian derives from the Malay for "spike" (duri), maybe they'll have to come up with an entirely new name for that circumcised fruit. There might be something to that purported Chinese curse after all — "May you live in interesting times; may you find what you are looking for."
Will Budiaman is the Recipe Editor at The Daily Meal. Follow him on Twitter @WillBudiaman.