Thai scientist has deodorized the stinky 'king of fruits'

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

Durian is a popular fruit in southeast Asia.
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Durian are often banned from hotels and public transportation because of the fruit's strong smell.
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In southeast Asia, durian is known as the "king of fruits," but with its pungent odor, the large, spike-husked fruit receives less-than-royal treatment in many quarters.

A Thai scientist thinks he has found the key to more widespread acceptance of durian, by creating odorless varieties of the fruit. After 20 years of cross-breeding, researcher Songpol Somsri has come up with a durian "that smells as inoffensive as a banana," according to an article today by The Guardian.

"I've got friends from Australia, Europe and Japan who just won't eat durian because they can't stand the smell," Songpol was quoted as saying. "But I'm sure producing those with a mild smell will help us find new markets."

Despite their popularity, the fruits are banned from the subway system in Singapore. In Bangkok, taxi drivers will often balk at a passenger with durian. The region's airlines won't allow them to be brought onboard. Across southeast Asia, a sign that denotes a finer hotel is a placard in the lobby with a red circle and cross through a silhouette of a durian.

Cultivated across all of southeast Asia, the fruit measures about 12 inches (30 centimeters) long and 6 inches (15 centimeters) in diameter, and weighs around 2 to 7 pounds (1 to 3 kilograms). The fruits are green on the outside, and covered with a thick, spike-covered husk. In Malay, the name durian literally means "thorny fruit".

Inside is a yellow, custard-like flesh that has been described as nutty and sweet, perhaps like a fine French cheese. But because of the smell, which can be overpowering, durian is an acquired taste.

The Guardian quoted a travel writer who described the smell like "pigshit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock."

Devotees of the "king of fruits" say a major part of the experience of eating the smelly fruit is the aroma, or fragrance, if you will.

"To anyone who doesn't like durian, it smells like a bunch of dead cats," Bob Halliday, a food writer in Bangkok was quoted as saying by The New York Times in April. "But as you get to appreciate durian, the smell is not offensive at all. It's attractive. It makes you drool like a mastiff."

Swanzea Banchee, manager of Sunshine Fruit, a major Thai exporter of durian, told National Public Radio (NPR) last month that he thinks an odorless variety of durian would help increase orders from overseas. But, he said he'd never eat one, adding that if a durian doesn't smell, then it isn't really a durian.

"I don't think it's possible to make a durian that doesn't smell," orchardist Somchai Tadchang was quoted as saying by The Times. "Anyway, durians actually smell good," he told The Times. "Only rotten durians stink."

But Dr. Songpol, senior agricultural scientist for the Thai government's Department of Agriculture, has put a lot of time and effort into creating his varieties of odorless durian, called Chanthaburi No. 1 and Chanthaburi No. 2. They were developed at the department's Horticultural Research Institute in Chanthaburi Province, in eastern Thailand, near the border with Cambodia, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) from Bangkok. Growing up on a durian farm, he has studied them all his life, he said.

The research farm has several thousand durian trees, and Songpol has spent about 20 years crossing more than 90 different varieties to produce Chantaburi No. 1. It started with only one tree, planted 18 years ago, and which produces about a dozen fruit annually, Songpol told NPR.

Songpol has also been working on another variety of durian, without either the smell or the spikes. It's called Chanthaburi No. 3, he said.

The Thai government is keen to produce and export odor- and spike-free durian, announcing a plan back in April to distribute saplings of the three new varieties to farmers. It's expected that the odorless durians will hit the market in around three years.


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