Saturday, June 21, 2008

Durian fruit Stinky, Pricey Delicacy

The world's smelliest fruit may now also be the most expensive. It's the spiky, sulphurous durian, which has been selling in Thailand this summer for $200 each.

Adored by Southeast Asians and Chinese, the durian sends most foreigners fleeing, thanks to its unmistakable odor. "Gasoline" and "blue cheese" are two tame metaphors people often use to describe it; "garbage," "stinky socks" and "manure" also are frequently invoked. Even here in Thailand, durians are banned in hotel elevators, subways and airplanes. But they are the center of attention at Bangkok's upscale Otokor Market, where they are displayed in stacks, like pineapples on steroids.

The only thing about the durian more striking than the smell is the price: $200 for a prized specimen, and that is in a city where almost every tropical fruit is a bargain. Speaking of food inflation, that's an increase of 50% in just two years.

The Mon Thong, the most plentiful of Thailand's 30-odd species of durians, can be had for a mere $10 to $15 each. But prices rise to the stratosphere for the Kan Yao, a prized variety whose best specimens come from the Nonthaburi province, next to Bangkok. Thais swear Nonthaburi's soil and water produce the perfect kan yao durians -- better than those grown elsewhere in Thailand -- or for that matter in Malaysia or the Philippines, whose local durians have their own enthusiasts. In the U.S., imported durians sold at Asian and specialty markets usually have been picked so green that by the time they ripen they bear scant resemblance to durians eaten in Asia.

At Bangkok's Otokor market, durians attract devoted customers.

Behind the kan yao's high price -- $200 is a record this year -- is the confluence of two factors: Nonthaburi is turning into a bedroom suburb of Bangkok, with high-rise condominiums replacing the orchards. At the same time, as Bangkok's middle class grows, more people each year clamor after Nonthaburi's reduced durian crop. Especially in the past two years, demand has seemed to soar, even as supply plummeted.

This makes Vibhavadi Mapobsuk a popular woman. At her tiny stand in Otokor, she sells kan yao and 20 other species of durian harvested from trees she and her relatives own in Nonthaburi. She says her trees are at least 80 years old. Her customers are such devotees that some of them visit her orchard three months in advance, when the durians are tiny, to pick the ones they want, paying half the purchase price as the deposit. Ms. Vibhavadi prides herself on remembering everyone's selection without having to place tags on branches to identify which durian belongs to whom, as many other growers do.

An interview with Ms. Vibhavadi is a drawn-out process. Every minute or so, a customer interrupts waving stacks of 1000-baht notes, each worth about $30. One woman in line buys so many durians she can barely carry the plastic bags away; it's enough to feed an army platoon. "They're for my extended family," she explains. How many is that? "Four people," she answers. A man is spending $15 for a tiny misshapen kan yao; the $200 kan yaos by contrast are huge and perfectly symmetrical. "I'm not eating any because the price is so high," he says. "It's only for my wife, to show how much I love her."

Another customer gets sent away empty-handed. After he picked out the durian he wanted, Ms. Vibhavadi cut it open for him, looked at the meat and rejected the fruit as not up to her standards. She cut a second durian -- the only other one in his price range -- and rejected that one, too. Ms. Vibhavadi brags that she uses no chemicals, and she holds up with pride a durian whose top half is squashed and dark brown because of an invasion of predators.
[Durian photo]

Cutting open a durian, whose season extends from April to July, requires considerable skill. The spikes are sharp, but Ms. Vibhavadi doesn't wear gloves as she slices the durian lengthwise with a big knife and pulls apart the two halves. Each wedge yields three or four big dark brown pods covered with yellow flesh -- the part that's eaten. The taste -- sweet, nutty -- and the custard-like texture bear no relation to the smell, which is so powerful that a durian will quickly impart its aroma to milk, juice and everything else in the refrigerator, even if it's in a sealed container. A mon thong is so custardy it adheres to the fingers, and Thais complain that the taste is excessively sweet. By contrast, the flesh of the kan yao is firmer and the taste much more subtle.

One problem buyers face is knowing when the durian is ready to eat, since different species -- and even the same species from different trees -- come in varying shades of green and brown that don't betray their ripeness. Ms. Vibhavadi, who grew up on a durian farm, says the solution is to listen carefully as you tap them with a knife handle. "When you hear 'peng, peng, peng,' they're not ready yet," she states. " 'Boop, boop, boop' and they're ripe."

In February, ten researchers from Warsaw Agricultural University, in Poland, published what they claim is the first extensive study of the durian's health benefits. They found that the Mon Thong was so high in antioxidants that they suggested it be included in diets to prevent heart disease. The Kan Yao also was found effective, but less so.

That should come as a relief to durian eaters who have suffered from its extreme richness and curious heat-inducing properties. Many people perspire excessively for an hour or two after consuming a durian -- the high sulfur content is generally thought to be the cause, says Bob Halliday, a Bangkok restaurant critic and a Western expert on Thai foods. A common remedy is to eat durian along with mangosteens, a small fruit with a hard purple shell and sweet, white flesh that many Thais believe has a cooling effect. Durian orchards often have mangosteen trees growing adjacent to them, and durian growers say the two fruits are like brothers; the branches grow intertwined.

Both durians and mangosteens were available in profusion at this year's annual Nonthaburi durian fair, held on the grounds of a Buddhist temple. Last year, the fair drew 20,000 visitors over a nine-day period. Organizers certify each grower to make certain no one falsely claims to come from the province. The durian is so beloved that it practically sells itself -- when a pickup truck loaded with durians comes from a farm to Bangkok, it need only pull over to any curb, and a crowd of smiling Thais will instantly surround it. The fair is no exception. "I just sold a small kan yao for 2500 baht ($80)," brags Prakong Krutthai, whose small table of durians was surrounded by potential buyers.


When celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten opened Spice Market restaurant in New York City in 2004, durian ice cream was on the menu, and its stinky-socks aroma and blue-cheese finish were the talk of the food scene. Then pastry chef Pichet Ong left to open his own restaurant, P*ONG, and, in April, a takeout place called Batch. Durian ice cream is available by special request, and so far, he's had all of 15 orders -- at $18 a quart -- from curiosity-seekers and from people who have lived in Southeast Asia. "It is definitely an acquired taste," Mr. Ong says.

--Katy McLaughlin
Pichet Ong's Durian Ice Cream
[Durian ice cream photo]
Andrew Scrivani for The Wall Street Journal

Makes: 1 quart
Prep time: 5 minutes
Freezing time: 20 minutes to chill, plus 20 to 30 minutes for freezing (time depends on your ice-cream maker)

1 pound frozen durian meat, preferably a variety such as Mon Thong, thawed (found in plastic boxes in the freezer section of some Asian markets)
1 1/2 cups milk
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 egg yolks
2/3 cup well-shaken coconut milk, chilled
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
• Put durian meat, milk, sugar, and salt in a large, heavy saucepan set over medium-high heat, whisking often to break up the durian, until the mixture scalds, 2 to 3 minutes. Meanwhile, place the egg yolks in a medium mixing bowl.

• Ladle 1 to 2 cups of the warm durian and milk mixture into the bowl of yolks and whisk quickly to combine and temper the eggs. Add the remaining durian mixture and whisk to combine.

• Whisk the coconut milk and vanilla into the mixture. Set the bowl of custard in a larger bowl filled with ice and water (an ice-water bath) to chill.

• Once cooled, churn ice-cream base in maker according to manufacturer's instructions. Depending on your machine, you may need to transfer the ice cream to a container and place in your freezer to achieve desired consistency.

Chef's tips: Be sure to use a variety like Mon Thong, which is golden yellow and has a soft, custard-like texture when ripe. For a smooth texture, blend the durian and the milk in a blender before placing them in the saucepan. My preference, however, is for a chunkier texture.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Grown in Transit

Grown in Transit

Supermarkets and modern food transportation systems have sacrificed freshness and seasonality in favour of warehousing depots, bulk transportation and blemish-free produce. But a new attitude is emerging, with the creation of innovative ways of growing food in transit rather than refrigerating products into suspended animation.

Design Academy Eindhoven graduate Agata Jaworska's project "Made in Transit" aims to eliminate the wasted time and trapped inventory in many supply chains by actually growing produce en route to the store. Jaworska's concept aims to move from "Best Before" preservative packaging to "Ready By" cultivational packaging which consumers would open when the product was ready for consumption. Jaworska's first example [below] would grow mushrooms on the way to the supermarket.

The instant a crop is removed from the ground or separated from its parent plant, a steady process of deterioration begins, says Jaworska. Methods to compensate for the loss of quality, taste and nutrients can only slow the process of deterioration but the result will never match what we have at the source of life. The Grown in Transit concept enables growth along the way, to deliver absolute freshness and allow the consumer to harvest their own food. The idea would also minimise excess packaging such as the plastic film and crates that protect delicate food items in transit. These are rarely reused.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Banana: R.I.P.

They're in trouble. Can biotechnology save the fruit?
The banana we eat today is not the one your grandparents ate. That one - known as the Gros Michel - was, by all accounts, bigger, tastier, and hardier than the variety we know and love, which is called the Cavendish. The unavailability of the Gros Michel is easily explained: it is virtually extinct.

Introduced to our hemisphere in the late 19th century, the Gros Michel was almost immediately hit by a blight that wiped it out by 1960. The Cavendish was adopted at the last minute by the big banana companies - Chiquita and Dole - because it was resistant to that blight, a fungus known as Panama disease. For the past fifty years, all has been quiet in the banana world. Until now.

Panama disease in Hawaii
Photo: Scot Nelson
Panama disease - or Fusarium wilt of banana - is back, and the Cavendish does not appear to be safe from this new strain, which appeared two decades ago in Malaysia, spread slowly at first, but is now moving at a geometrically quicker pace. There is no cure, and nearly every banana scientist says that though Panama disease has yet to hit the banana crops of Latin America, which feed our hemisphere, the question is not if this will happen, but when. Even worse, the malady has the potential to spread to dozens of other banana varieties, including African bananas, the primary source of nutrition for millions of people.

Crop disease is only half the problem. The other part is denial. One of the most recent places Panama disease struck was Australia. Three years ago, when I was researching my book on bananas, growers down under were bragging that they'd found a way to control the disease, which first appeared in 1997 near the Northern Territory town of Darwin. "We have developed a rapid and accurate DNA-based diagnostic test...used in the detection and management of outbreaks," asserted a brochure issued by the country's Cooperative Research Centre for Plant Protection.

The Australian management program consisted of quick quarantine of fields that were proven by the test to be infected. But early detection doesn't necessarily buy enough time. The plan came apart in March 2006, when Cyclone Larry ravaged Australia's banana growing regions. High winds destroyed more than 85% of the banana crop, and flooding spread infected water and dirt to the surviving banana trees. An October report from the Australia Broadcasting Company documented the rapid spread of the blight on previously-disease free plantations. Reporter Anne Barker wrote that the "industry, which once had such bright prospects, is now facing collapse."

Panama disease hasn't hit our hemisphere yet, and the big banana companies appear unalarmed. Chiquita's 2006 annual report doesn't mention banana disease at all. The company's 2007 end-of-year SEC filing names plant disease as a "risk factor," but only mentions black sigatoka, which can be controlled chemically.

Why should it be? After all, Latin America, where we grow all of our bananas, is a hemisphere away from the places where the disease is now spreading. With all that ocean, could the epidemic could actually reach our bananalands?

Not only is it possible, it might already be happening. In late December, 2007, Philippine agriculture secretary Arthur Yap announced that the U.S. had agreed to import a large shipment of Cavendish bananas from Philippine plantations (overall, we import about 8.5 billion pounds of bananas each year, all from Latin America).

Transgenic plants in field, Uganda
Photo: Rony Swennen
Panama disease is so virulent that a single clump of dirt tracked in on a tire tread or a shoe can spark a country-wide outbreak. It isn't hard to imagine that a stray banana box from the Philippines, loaded into a Dole shipping container could be left unloaded at Long Beach, California, and continue on to Guatemala, where it could infect that nation's crop and tear through Latin America. In fact, the original Panama disease outbreak that decimated the Gros Michel almost certainly went from Asia, to the Caribbean, to Central and South America, though the exact path was never determined. The spread of Panama disease from Asia to the banana plantations of the Western Hemisphere is more than imaginable. With shipping containers traveling the world, and bananas crossing hemispheres, it's likely.

When the first outbreak of Panama disease hit the Gros Michels of South and Central America, it nearly put the entire industry out of business. Only at the last minute was a substitute banana - the Cavendish - found. The Cavendish was thought to be resistant, and for 50 years, that was true. No longer.

Transgenic banana plantlet in Belgian lab
Photo: Dan Koeppel
Now, the future of the Cavendish lies in genetic engineering. Scientists have created bananas that resist Panama disease in the lab. The problem with these engineered bananas is that they lack the other characteristics - ideal ripening speed, a thick skin, and the right taste - that make a banana variety attractive for export. Making a single banana with all of those attributes may take years. Another issue is consumer acceptance: surveys have shown that most shoppers would reject modified bananas, even if they were proven to be safe.

Bananas are, however, excellent candidates for genetic modification. They are sterile - no seeds or pollen by which mutations might spread - and reproduce vegetatively. Right now, regulations have prevented even publicly funded research organizations from testing more than a handful of transformed bananas in the field. Most of this research has been conducted under the auspices of Bioversity International, an umbrella group that works mostly on food security issues. The bananas being field tested were developed by scientists in Leuven, Belgium, and are being grown at experimental plots in Uganda, a country where about 80 percent of some local diets is made up of the fruit, and where the consequences of a banana wipe-out would be disastrous. The millions of people like those in Uganda who depend on bananas to survive would be the real beneficiaries of a better banana.

There's little time left. If there is a "grail banana," it is likely to be found in the lab. The question is whether we'll let it split from there.

Dan Koeppel is the author of Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World. He spent three years hanging out with banana growers, scientists, and banana consumers around the world. His website is

Just the cricket: Eating insects is good for us and for the environment, scientists claim

It might be a while before they appear on the shelf at Tesco.

But scientists claim adding insects to our diet would be good for us and the environment.

Crunching into crickets or snacking on grilled caterpillar is apparently a means to a nutrient-rich diet that also helps reduce pests and puts less strain on the planet than eating conventional meat.

Enlarge insects

Some insects in their dried form are said to have twice the protein of raw meat and fish, while others are rich in unsaturated fat and contain important vitamins and minerals.

Experts believe they could one day be marketed as a healthy alternative to fatty snacks.

In most of Europe, bug-eating is largely restricted to the belated realisation that there has been an unwelcome addition to the salad.

It is common elsewhere, however, with some 1,700 species of bug eaten in 113 countries.

In Taiwan, stir-fried crickets or sauteed caterpillars are delicacies. A plate of maguey worms - larvae of a giant butterfly - sells for £12.50 in smart Mexican restaurants.

Sago grubs wrapped in banana leaves go down well in Papua New Guinea, as does dragonfly in Bali.

In many parts of south-east Asia market stalls sell insects by the pound and deep-fried snacks are served up as street food.

Insects are arthropods, much like crab, shrimps and lobster which are all accepted by the European palate. In North Africa locusts are sometimes called sky prawns.

But Patrick Durst, of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, said that if consumers were to be tempted to broaden their culinary horizons the trick might be to make the bugs look more palatable.

'You need to get the food into a form where someone doesn't have to look the bug in the eye when they eat it,' he said.

Earlier this year the Food and Agriculture Organisation held a conference to discuss how entomophagy - eating insects as food - could contribute to sustainable development.

Bug-farming preserves forests - which are needed to attract insects - and is encouraged in some countries.

As for pesticides, some experts have pointed out the irony of using chemicals to get rid of bugs that are more nutritious than the crops they prey on.

In Thailand when pesticides failed to control locusts, the government urged locals to eat them and distributed recipes.

Chef Paul Cook, who supplies exotic and unusual food through his Bristol-based business Osgrow, has sold a range of insects including locusts.

He said: 'You have to get past your feeling when you look at a whole locust or cricket. They are very clean and nutritious.

'But I don't think we are going to see Jamie Oliver encouraging us to have sky prawns on the school menu.'