One aspect of life in Thailand that I did not anticipate was my frequent outings for fresh fruit. It’s something I wrote about here, and something I continue to be grateful for in daily life here. I’ve always loved fruit, and have been known to go a bit crazy, hoarding half-bushels of peaches and stalking the mango and cherry sales at Whole Foods, so I thought it would be appropriate to catalog the fruits commonly for sale in Chiang Mai as I eat them.
Up first? Durian. I suppose the first fruit I write about shouldn’t be the most notorious, as subsequent posts might be bores in comparison, but I just finished a snack, and I believe this one deserves to be discussed while it’s fresh.
The durian is a large fruit, bigger than a basketball in many cases, but much heavier. It’s spiny, weapon-like green shell surrounds partitions of pale yellow flesh. Thin membranes separate the creamy insides into distinct pieces that fall apart with a light touch. It’s often sold in individual portions at fruit stands and markets, though I’ve seen a few late-night durian trucks selling whole and half fruits to excited consumers.
Photo credit: NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM, LONDON/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
Notorious for its strong smell and flavor, durian is widely prized by Thai, Malays, and Singaporeans and despised by virtually everyone else. Every guidebook, cookbook, blog, cooking class instructor, tour guide, and traveler will go on and on about the durian, how its smell and taste either attracts or repels with intensity–it’s iconic. Loved or hated, the durian is part of the national identity and an ongoing dialogue generator. I imagine the habits of the nightly roadside stand customers who must leave home after dark, aided by a suspicious excuse to partners, housemates, and parents (“Oh, I’ve got to go to the ATM, honey! Be back soon!”) before meeting a durian dealer under night’s protective cover. Here, at a secret meeting place, in the back of a truck, these enthusiastic addicts devour half a fruit in darkness before heading back home, scent trailing behind.
I bought the small section of Durian pictured up top from a market for 40 baht, or about $1.30, pre-cut, laid out on a banana leaf and packaged in styrofoam and plastic wrap. I think it must be out of season, because that price was quite exorbitant for such a small piece when compared with nearly every other fruit. Or maybe I got the farang price. Who knows.
I didn’t notice the smell on my walk back from the market. The fruit was wrapped up and packaged in a bag with cut persimmons. The sweet, funny-looking rambutans I purchased absorbed all of my attention and senses as I tore into them on my stroll. The smells of garbage and sewage did float by every once in a while, but that’s to be expected even without having a bag of durian nearby. I didn’t attribute the smells to the fruit. I missed the foreshadowing.
It was Andy who first noticed the smell while I was busy showing him my other purchases and opening containers of flat noodles with yellow curry. In the short time that the durian existed within smelling distance in our home, his sensitive nose led him to investigate the garbage and worry about a propane leak in the apartment. The fruit caused both situations. Here is the best way I can describe its smell: garbage, rotting vegetables, and unbreathable, probably poisonous gas.
The incidents did not deter me, though they should have, from trying the fruit. I wanted so badly to love it. I wanted to understand the cult of devotion surrounding it and become part of the congregation. I wanted to reach that level of understanding attained by so few foreigners. I wanted to fraternize with its lovers and establish a connection with this place I live in through my exceptional love of a fruit I should despise due to my stunted, Western tastes.
I knew the fruit was supposed to smell bad, but for some reason I thought it would be similar to fish, vinegar, or fermented foods–things that I’ve heard others call stinky, rotten, or otherwise undesirable, but I would call delicious. I assumed durian would be the same. I like plenty of icky things. Additionally, I’d been snacking on chips made from dehydrated durian for some time, and I’d loved those.
I tried not to inhale as I scooped up a bite of the gobs of gooey flesh and raised it to my mouth. The first taste was not bad. The creamy mass coated my tongue with a bright little kick; it was doable. Not two seconds later, everything changed. My mouth felt smothered, suffocated by a terrible, terrible sludge that could not dissolve quickly enough. I snapped some photos while holding my breath, but eventually I had to breathe, and the fumes traveled through my nasal passages and into my brain, where my perception of its taste became a new level of awful with each breath. It tasted as if rotting onions and potatoes had romped around a methane-soaked trashcan before deciding to continue the party in my mouth.
It tasted like something you shouldn’t eat. It’s flesh sent a warning message to my brain to QUIT DOING THAT. So I packaged up the remains, sealed them in a plastic bag and buried them in the hall trash.
As of today I have zero desire to ever put that in my mouth again. Accepting a defeat by the King of Fruits, I’ve taken my place of shame with all of the others on Koh Angkrit, where burritos, burgers, pizza, and cheese pave the roads and rivers flow with Bud Light. If you need me, I’ll be out back, eating Oreos and watching reality TV.
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