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.
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.
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.