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Satisfying A Durian Craving

Kasma Loha-unchit, Wednesday, July 18th, 2012

The bountiful durian season in Thailand wound down to its tail end as I left to return home to Oakland at the end of this June. But I had my fill the last three weeks of my stay, succumbing to temptation time and again as I walked down Bangkok’s busy streets, around bustling open-air marketplaces and even through the produce aisles of modern supermarkets. The “King of Fruits” was everywhere and it’s so easy nowadays to satisfy a craving without having to overeat, overspend, or be intimidated at having to pry open the wickedly spiky fruit oneself.

(Click images to see larger version.)

Peeled Durian

Peeled Durian at Or Tor Kor Market

Unlike days long passed, it’s no longer necessary to buy durians whole. From streetside vendors to supermarket aisles, the fruit is available already peeled and sealed in packages holding one to two sections of the fruit (a durian has three to five sections, depending on size and shape), costing anywhere from 60 to 150 baht ($2 to $5) when the fruit is in season and usually doubling in price during the off-season. The packages are wrapped in clear plastic, making it easier to tell how ripe the fruit is and select according to one’s taste. Some Thais like their durian under-ripe (hahm hahm) with more of a crisp texture and less of a scent. Some like it really ripe (ngom ngom) – soft and creamy with a robust aroma and usually a deeper color. Many prefer it “just right” – neither too green nor too ripe (gkam lang gkin or “just the time to eat”), which is what I usually go for. At this stage, it is rich and creamy like custard, yet firm in texture without being too soft or too moist, and deliciously fragrant without being too sulfurishly odiferous. Most vendors won’t allow you to touch the package to feel how firm or soft the fruit is, so visual guidance has to be depended upon. But they will tell you the stage of ripeness of the package that looks good to you. Some label the stage of ripeness, in Thai of course, on the plastic wrap next to the price.

Rambutan & Durian

Rambutan & Durian

During my childhood and youth, in the days before styrofoam, plastic wrap and air-conditioned supermarkets, durians were sold only whole and buying one involved quite a ritual. Some people could tell a good durian by just looking at it, while others relied on their sense of smell. The size and shape of the fruit were important considerations. A round and perfectly symmetrical one was likely to have more sections holding more fruit than an unevenly skewed one. Vendors often used a bamboo stick to tap on the spiky fruit to determine ripeness by tone. They would cut a triangular-shaped plug through the thick brownish green peel for the prospective buyer to take a peak at the fruit inside, smell more closely and even lightly touch the flesh. When all the indicators met with the customer’s satisfaction, the durian was weighed and haggling over price would take place.

Weighing Durian

Vendor weighing a durian

After the purchase, another set of rituals took place. if a household had both durian lovers and durian haters like my family, when the fruit was brought home, it would have to be kept and pried open outside the house – in the garden or the detached kitchen behind the house. Then it would have to be consumed by the durian lovers in its entirety before they could return into the house. There were no air-tight plastic containers in those days to store uneaten portions in the fridge, and even if they were carefully wrapped for storage in the fridge, the durian’s tenacious aroma could easily escape through any seal and permeate the ice box, contaminating everything within. For durian haters, even imperceptible levels of the fruit’s scent was objectionable and the cause of much family discord.

Durian Stall

Durian at Samrong Market

Of course, most durians are still sold whole today to satisfy the craving of several people in a family (it’s less expensive to buy whole fruits) and the ritual of selecting one still takes place as described. A difference from the past is that after a durian is bought, the vendor provides the additional service, it it is desired by the customer, of peeling and boxing the golden yellow chunks of the inner fruit in styrofoam or wrapping with clear plastic. One no longer needs to risk being jabbed by the nasty spikes just to enjoy the fruit.

Back in the Bay Area, satisfying a durian craving can be an expensive affair as fresh durians are sold only whole – for as much as $7 a pound! That’s exponentially higher than the approximately 100 baht (around $3) I have been spending the past few weeks on an already peeled package of absolutely divine tree-ripened fruit. There are, of course, less expensive frozen durians – whole as well as peeled in sealed packages, but any kind of frozen fruit loses a lot of its true character and durian is not the least of them. For durian lovers, a fresh durian is worth the price to satisfy a seasonal addiction.

Durian Sections

Durian sections at Seri market

Truck Vendor

Durian truck vendor

Peeling Durian

Preparing to peel durian

But of course, durians imported into the Bay Area, almost all of them from Thailand, tend to be picked quite green when there is little, if any, aroma detectable to foul up closed spaces during transport. This makes for quality that is less than ideal. For me, I take a closer look than if I were buying one in Thailand. The stem and exterior should look fresh and not dried out and there must be a distinctive durian fragrance coming through when I hold the bottom of the fruit up to my nose. Better yet, if there is a small split on the bottom of the durian, I am assured that the fruit has been picked closer to maturity and has continued to ripen in transit. But of course, if there is no smell at all exuding from the split, there’s the chance that the split might have come about from the fruit banging against other fruits during transport. If there is a faint fragrance, I would consider buying it and leaving the fruit at room temperature in the basement or garage for a day or two until the aroma becomes more prominent before prying it open. The split makes it easier for you to open up the durian.

Oakland Durian

Oakland durian

Twice this spring I came across durians at a small market in Oakland Chinatown that had all indicators that they were worth buying. And both Michael and I weren’t disappointed! There was enough in each fruit to satisfy us for a couple of sittings. At $6.59 a pound for an average five-pound durian, we ended up with only about a pound and a half of peeled edible fruit. An expensive splurge that’s for sure! For Michael, that would have to do for this durian season. For me, they were just teasers, as I knew I would certainly be indulging in more during my planned three-week trip to Thailand in June to visit my mother. And indeed I took every opportunity to satisfy my craving!


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Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, July 2012

Nakhon Thong – Portrait of a Thai Community

Kasma Loha-unchit, Friday, June 3rd, 2011

The Nakhon Thong community is situated just north of Sukhumvit Road and across the canal from the large municipal market and bustling town center of Samrong in Samut Prakan province.

(Note: scroll down for a slide show of images from Nakhon Thong.)

Samrong Canal

Samrong canal

My sister moved to this community about a year and a half ago along with my elderly mother whom she has been taking care of the past five years. It’s a convenient neighborhood with all essential services within a short walking distance, including two large, open-air fresh markets, a shopping mall with a big department store and modern supermarket, branches of all major banks, and the post office. Although it is in Samut Prakan province, the town of Samrong is only a few kilometers across the boundary line from Bangkok and is very much part of the greater Bangkok metropolitan area. Mass transportation systems and freeways make commute to jobs in the heart of the capital easy.

In many ways, Nakhon Thong is a typical Thai working class community with most of the residents living in two- to three-story townhouses or rowhouses along quiet dead-end streets and alleys. Many of the rowhouses have been converted into primary residences from machine shops prevalent in the area in years past. Most are homes to families with two to three generations living under the same roof, so it is common to see grandmas and grandpas visiting one another and small children running around the alleyways playing.

Offering Alms

Offering alms to a monk

Like in many communities, there are social programs for the residents sponsored by the district government. For instance, for several weekends last year, free cooking and craft classes were offered in the open area by the canal that serves as the community’s forum. Every weekday evening, a free aerobic exercise class is given in this same space. Neighborhood meetings are frequently held here as well with good attendance and most of the residents know one another and watch out for each other. Living in the community is a district representative who visits every home to make sure underweight children are provided with free milk and the elderly and the handicapped are given assistance in applying for the central government’s 500 baht per month welfare program for the disadvantaged.

As in many working class communities, there are cottage businesses operating on the ground floors of many of the rowhouses. Among them is a home that makes coconut ice cream in large canisters for tricycle street vendors. Another home sews striped fiberglass bags like the ones you see selling in most marketplaces around the country. Still another home makes beautiful cloth cosmetic bags for vendor stalls by the shopping mall.

Cooking on the Street

Cooking on the street

But perhaps the most common cottage business is food and there are many cooks along the alleyways of the community offering a range of either pre-made or cook-to-order food. Together with all manner of tricycle, motorcycle and pushcart food vendors who regularly come into the neighborhood, busy home-makers and the elderly need not leave their homes to be well-fed. For more choices, a short walk over a pedestrian bridge by the Sukhumvit Road overpass, or an even quicker and easier 2-baht ferry boat ride across the canal will bring you to a bustling marketplace selling all kinds of fresh produce and meats, as well as a wide assortment of ready-to-eat foods. From there, a short walk across the street takes you to another large open-air food market by the big shopping mall, in which are plenty of eateries on several floors. Busy commuters tired out by Bangkok’s notorious traffic have plenty of choices to pick from on their walk home from the bus stop and need not worry about cooking after a long hard day.


Click on “Play” below to begin a slideshow. You can also click on any picture individually and either scroll through the images using “Next” and “Prev” or start the slideshow at any image. Captions accompany the images. Clicking on a slide will also take you to the next image.


Nahkon Thong Community – Slide Show

Community Meeting
Ice Cream Vendor
Ice Cream Sandwich
Caregiver
Chicken Vendor
Pork Vendor
Community Spirit House
Giving Alms
Making Coconut Ice Cream
Motorcycle Food Vendor
Motorcycle Food Cart
Cooking on the Street
More Prepared Food
Slicing Crispy Pork}
Pork Soup Vendor
Pushcart Vendor
Salad Vendor
Herbal Drink Vendor
Herbal Drink
Drink Stand
Ferry Boat
Samrong Canal
Pedestrian Bridge
Samrong Food Market
Street Vendors
Open-Air Market
Shopping Center Food Fair
Outside Food Stalls

A community meeting sponsored by the district government announces social programs planned for the neighborhood.

My sister waits for her turn to buy coconut ice cream from a tricycle cart parked in front of her townhouse.

The vendor makes a Thai-style ice cream sandwich for my sister.

Wan, a neighbor hired by my sister to help take care of my mother, takes her blood pressure. Wan is also very active in helping handicapped people in the community.

A pushcart fried chicken vendor visits the neighborhood.

This motorcycle vendor is well-known in the neighborhood for his delicious barbecued pork and crispy pork rice.

This is the community's spirit house.

Nan, an elderly neighbor, gives alms to a monk across the alley from the community's spirit house. The woman kneeling in front makes a variety of food (in the large pots) each morning for sale outside her home as alms offering.

A couple of doors down from where residents gather in the morning to give alms to monks, coconut ice cream is being made in large canisters for tricycle cart vendors who will come by to pick them up.

A motorcycle food vendor makes his way into the community, announcing his arrival with the sound of a peculiar horn.

A motorcycle cart sells fresh and pickled fruits and snack foods.

Neighbor Keow, who loves to cook, makes delicious dishes on propane burners outside her home to sell to residents in the community who doesn't have time to cook. She also makes some money on the side by selling transportation services with her pickup truck. We've relied on the convenience of hiring her to take us to the airport on our trip back to the USA, especially with our big pieces of luggage which wouldn't fit in a single cab!

Appetizing home-made food to go varies from day to day from neighborhood street stalls, giving busy residents choices and variety in their diet.

Jeng, who lives across the alley from Keow, is slicing up yummy crispy fried pork belly for me to take on my plane ride home. She cooks just about any standard wok dishes to order.

Dtia and Jae make pork soup noodles from a push cart parked outside their home.

A couple make green papaya salad and grill chicken and fish on a pushcart outside their waterfront townhouse.

Hohm is proud of her made-to-order Isan-style hot-and-sour salads, which sell out every day.

Across the walkway from Hohm's cart, Oy sells a home-made herbal drink of pandan leaves and butterfly pea flower, which she grows herself.

Oy's herbal drink is colored naturally with fresh green pandan bai toey leaves and the deep blue butterfly pea flower (dawk anchan).

Oy's brother sets up the tables along the canal, selling various cold drinks and snacks on a hot summer afternoon.

Petch and other members of his family operate a simple wooden boat "ferry" service to cross the canal to the marketplace for two baht per ride.

This view of the Klong Samrong is seen from the middle of the pedestrian bridge crossing the canal. The community is situated on the right bank where the ferry boat is seen at a distance in the middle of the picture.

The pedestrian bridge straddles the concrete Sukhumvit Road bridge. This picture is taken from the marketplace side.

The huge Samrong municipal fresh food market as seen from the bottom of the pedestrian bridge.

Vendors sell ready-made foods, as well as clothing and household items, to passersby from stalls beneath the Sukhumvit Road overpass

In another large open-air market across the Sukhumvit Road overpass from the municipal market is bustling with shoppers.

Weeklong food fairs are frequently held in the wide open area on the ground floor just inside the main entrance of the Imperial World shopping complex. This is another reason why residents in nearby communities hardly need to cook.

Outside the Imperial World shopping complex are more food stalls under tents along the sidewalk.

Community Meeting thumbnail
Ice Cream Vendor thumbnail
Ice Cream Sandwich thumbnail
Caregiver thumbnail
Chicken Vendor thumbnail
Pork Vendor thumbnail
Community Spirit House thumbnail
Giving Alms thumbnail
Making Coconut Ice Cream thumbnail
Motorcycle Food Vendor thumbnail
Motorcycle Food Cart thumbnail
Cooking on the Street thumbnail
More Prepared Food thumbnail
Slicing Crispy Pork thumbnail
Pork Soup Vendor thumbnail
Pushcart vendor thumbnail
Salad Vendor thumbnail
Herbal Drink Vendor thumbnail
Herbal Drink thumbnail
Drink Stand thumbnail
Ferry Boat thumbnail
Samrong Canal thumbnail
Pedestrian Bridge thumbnail
Samrong Food Market thumbnail
Street Vendors thumbnail
Open-Air Market thumbnail
Shopping Center Food Fair thumbnail
Outside Food Stalls thumbnail

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, June 2011.