|Recently, the Nikkei Asian Review published an article entitled China’s Taste for Thai Durians Undiminished by Coronavirus. We believe that the Coronavirus originated in a wet market in Wuhan, China from infected bats or pangolins that are favorite Chinese delicacies. However, the greater agricultural cause for both China and Thailand is clearly the annual May durian harvest in Chantaburi, southern Thailand. The fruit shown below is referred to as “green gold” and has become a major export crop replacing rubber plantation acreage with a much higher value export crop.
An army of Chinese middlemen, who typically fan across Thailand to buy fruit during the harvest season, skipped that step and took a bold move to secure the supply by pre-booking purchases of the raw fruit in March before returning to China as international flights were shutting down. Well, the plan worked perfectly as the growers were guaranteed sales at pre-agreed prices and China was ending the Covid-19 lock-down period so demand was exceptional when the fruit ripened.
Therefore, the question is, “What is so special about this strange thorny fruit to warrant wholesale purchases of up to $4 per kilogram?” The fleshy interior can vary in intensity of the yellow color as shown below but one thing never varies and that is its aroma which could stop a train. Simply stated, the Chinese love it for a host of reasons, and if nothing else, the status and potential aphrodisiac properties they conjure up. In fact, durian represents 6.5% of Thai exports of which 70% go to China. In mid-2018, Jack Ma, co-founder and executive chairman of the massive e-tailer Alibaba Group Holding, offered 80,000 “golden pillow” durians weighing 200 tons. Within 60 seconds, they were sold.
The fruit is pleasing to taste but you do need to get past the smell. True connoisseurs can smell a ripened fruit and determine whether it passes the quality test.
On the other hand, many hotels and airlines make it quite clear that the fragrant fruit is banned. The smell evokes reactions from deep appreciation to intense disgust. It has been described as rotten onions, turpentine and raw sewage. As the persistence of its odor may linger for several days, people may find the sign shown below less offensive than the smell.
Therefore, what is so magical about this forbidden fruit that causes people to go to great lengths and expense to purchase it and even try to smuggle it on airplanes? The forbidden nature of it likely provides a certain status symbol.
Once we hosted some mainland Chinese guests at the famous Shangrila Restaurant Thaniya in Bangkok. Although Peking duck is said to have originated at a particular restaurant in Beijing, we have eaten it there and the duck does not hold a pancake compared to the crisp skin of Peking duck served most anywhere in Bangkok. Moreover, as our favorite restaurant was near the Patpong nightlife, there was a certain aura of forbidden fruit in the air as well. Copious quantities of alcohol were consumed by one of our portly Chinese guests who believed in one of the myths of durian thereby consuming huge quantities of the fruit in anticipation of his next venue. Sadly, we had to evacuate him to a nearby medical facility.
The alleged myths and facts about durian are enumerated below. My recommendation would be to ignore durian other than a one-time test drive and select a chilled jack fruit that is a distant cousin of durian. It has a nice crisp taste without the awful smell. If you have never heard massive thunder in the jungle, you cannot imagine the sound of an elephant with gas after consuming ill-gotten durian.
It is interesting that the Chinese went to great lengths to arrange shipments of durian during the Covid-19 crisis, while the U.S. pressured China to buy soybeans from the U.S. farm belt to enhance future election prospects. Sometimes a free market system can support a free election process.