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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
- Kasma’s article Durian – King of Fruits.
Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, July 2012