Heaven or Hell? Love it or hate it, the durian is one of Thailand’s most remarkable fruits.

durian thailand

Are you enlightened? My thinking is that you probably are. You’re settled into your lifestyle. And I’ll bet you anything you like that the word ‘healthy’ is one you frequently use. Your fridge back home is filled with non-sugar sodas and soft drinks. And most of what you eat is low in something – low-fat, low-carbohydrate, low-cholesterol, low-sugar. You check supermarket cans for chemicals and additives. You’re careful to eat fresh fruit or veg every day. And you probably jog.

All of this is comparatively new. Back in the 1980s the only people you saw running in the street were professional boxers and people trying not to miss a bus! Now entire nations are jogging about. Previously-unheard words such as antioxidant and Omega 3-6-9 Oil have become part of our daily vocabulary. And hundreds of dietary supplements, pills, extracts and potions have appeared to satisfy our lust for improved physical well-being.

But this hasn’t happened in Thailand. The Thai people already enjoy a diet that’s just about perfect. They can’t afford to live on fast food or freezer packs, and what they eat is balanced and freshly-made. The Thai lifestyle very much rotates around food. This includes lots of fresh vegetables, both cooked and raw. And it also includes fresh fruit. Thailand is home to  around 40 or so tropical fruits, many of which have now found their way (at a price!) into Western supermarkets. But over here all this goodness just grows on trees. These fruits come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes, some more exotic than others. Although the one that reigns supreme, the most impressive of all, the largest and the most legendary, is the durian.

The first time you see one it’ll halt you in your tracks. It’s huge, about the size of a football (although oval in shape), is covered with sharp and wicked-looking spikes that can draw blood, and has a thick stem like a handle. It looks like
something medieval knights might have used in battle. But it also stinks like a boatload of dead mermaids. It’ll make your eyes water from the other side of the street. The odour is so pungent and offensive that, throughout most of South East
Asia, you’ll see signs and notices banning it from enclosed public spaces and hotel rooms. But, despite all of this, it actually tastes utterly sublime. The yellow flesh inside each of its sectors is soft and yielding and similar in consistency to cold custard. It’s really sweet, and it’s sticky rather than juicy. And, when you combine the stink with the exquisite taste, you
realise why people either adore durian or detest it. There are no shades of grey here; you’ll either love it or hate it immediately.

This fruit (durio zibethinus) is rarely found outside South East Asia. It’s actually one of the few tropical fruits that are native to this region: most of what we now see was introduced here by European traders in the 17th and 18th centuries. The word ‘durian’ is a Malay word meaning spike, and zibethinus is derived from the Italian zibetto – meaning skunk! Unlike most fruit it ripens on the tree and when it is ready to fall, watch out! It’s also worth mentioning that fresh fruit are less
stinky and taste better.

To choose one, pick a fruit which is comparatively light in colour and has a big, solid stem. Give it a shake: the seed should move. Finally, an inserted knife should come out sticky; this is the best indication that the fruit is ripe. The opened fruit perishes fairly rapidly, but can last three to five days without refrigeration. However many local shops and supermarkets sell durian cut into packed segments and often frozen. As an alternative, it’s also sold cut into strips, dried and roasted; you’ll find little packets of this on sale in every 7-11, very tasty and with hardly any odour at all.

And it’s good for you, too. It’s rich in energy and minerals and contains simple fats (but is free from cholesterol) which replenish energy and revitalise the body. It’s high in fibre and also in the antioxidants of vitamin C and B. It’s a rich source
of potassium, an important electrolyte of cell and body fluids that helps in controlling heart rate and blood pressure. And it contains the essential amino acid, tryptophan (also known as ‘nature’s sleeping pill’) which in the body metabolises into serotonin and melatonin; these neuro-chemicals have important functions (like sleep-induction) and are also used in the treatment of epilepsy. A few dashes of durian will do you no harm at all. If only it didn’t smell so bad!

Rob De Wet