'King of fruits' is nothing to sniff at

'King of fruits' is nothing to sniff at

Most people who have a functioning hooter will be well aware we are in the middle of the durian season. I got a timely reminder when my wife returned triumphantly from a day trip to the orchards of Nakhon Nayok last weekend laden with what is called the "king of fruits''. It is also the smelliest of fruits, prompting a brisk trade in T-shirts bearing the message "tastes like heaven and smells like hell".

I am not a huge fan of durian. This is not so much to do with the pungent smell but that the creamy fruit is too rich for my taste. Nonetheless, in the interests of domestic harmony I did indulge in a few mouthfuls of the monthong (Golden Pillow) under the approving eyes of my wife. Actually it wasn't too bad, although it is definitely an acquired taste which I haven't quite acquired.

According to British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, the durian tastes like "rich butter-like custard, highly flavoured with almonds, but intermingled with wafts of flavour that call to mind cream cheeses, onion sauce, brown sherry and other incongruities".

Just imagine all that lot slopping about in your stomach. No wonder I can't handle it.

There are 234 different varieties of durian in Thailand and it is a serious business. There have even been cases of durian vendors suffering heavy fines for selling unripe durian which was deemed to be "deception". Apparently they weren't smelly enough. Sounds like ripe material for a Monty Python sketch.

Blancmange in the toilet

It is the smell of the durian which evokes more debate than any other fruit. So what is it about the odour which leads to it being banned by airlines, hotels and so on? It has variously been likened to decomposing fish, dead cats, stale vomit and rotting garbage. It has also prompted comparisons to unwashed socks and dirty laundry.

These observations are a trifle harsh. The most eloquent description comes from author Anthony Burgess in his excellent book The Long Day Wanes: A Malayan Trilogy. Burgess wrote that consuming durian was "like eating raspberry blancmange in the lavatory". What a splendid image.

There have been attempts to produce odourless durian but this did not go down too well with connoisseurs. To them a durian is not a durian unless it stinks. Among those who opposed non-smelly durian was the Post's former food critic, the late Bob Halliday, better known as Ung-ang Talay. When asked his views by the International Herald Tribune Bob remarked: "Making a non-smelly durian is like producing a thorn-less rose. It's really like cutting out the soul."

Spiky weapon

Buying durian is certainly not without its hazards. Ung-ang Talay had the dubious honour of being chased down a street by an angry ladyboy durian seller after suggesting the vendor's produce didn't smell quite right. That's not a bad conversation opener at a dinner party.

The durian can also be quite an effective weapon, as a Thai colleague discovered many years ago. He returned home late after a night out with his mates to be greeted by his furious wife wielding a durian. She scored a direct hit and he was limping about the office for weeks. Those spikes can be really painful. Hell hath no fury like a Thai woman hurling a durian.

Red hot chillies

Over the years the durian has been responsible for assorted mass evacuations, particularly in Europe and Australia, where its smell has been misinterpreted as some kind of lethal gas.

But the durian was not to blame when strange odours prompted a spectacular raid by London police on a Thai restaurant in Soho in October 2007. Armed police stormed the Thai Cottage restaurant believing it was the source of a possible chemical attack after frightened citizens complained of an overwhelming smell which made their eyes run and left them gasping for breath. There was chaos as shoppers rushed for cover fearing a deadly assault from this mysterious smell.

The "chemicals" turned out to be nothing more than chillies (nam prik pao) being prepared by the Thai chef who was understandably quite startled when police and firefighters broke down the restaurant door and stormed into his kitchen ready to pounce on the soup of the day.

The Podsnap family

Many thanks to a reader for the information that my wild guess last week that the quaint word "podsnappery" had a Dickensian feel to it turned out to be a rare occasion when I wasn't totally wrong.

In Dickens' last novel, Our Mutual Friend, there is a Mr John Podsnap, a pompous, smug and boorish fellow. There is in fact a whole family of Podsnappers. Sounds like a good name for a breakfast cereal.

It serves as a reminder of the wonderful, whimsical names Dickens created for his characters. Just the mention of Wackford Squeers brings an image of the sadistic schoolmaster and his awful wife in Nicholas Nickleby. Another loathsome teacher was Mr Creakle, a sadistic bully in David Copperfield.

Grimwig and Buzfuz

Another cracking name is Mr Sweedlepipe, an eccentric barber and bird-watcher in Martin Chuzzlewit. We must not forget the cruel stepfather Mr Murdstone (David Copperfield), the despicable Harold Skimpole (Bleak House) and Mr Grimwig (Oliver Twist), a pessimist who lived up to his name.

Deserving an honourable mention are Sgt Buzfuz (The Pickwick Papers) and the irresistible Anne Chickenstalker (Chimes).


Contact PostScript via email at oldcrutch@hotmail.com

Roger Crutchley

Bangkok Post columnist

A long time popular Bangkok Post columnist. In 1994 he won the Ayumongkol Literary Award. For many years he was Sports Editor at the Bangkok Post.

Email : oldcrutch@gmail.com

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