The controversy that erupted when Dr. Songpol Somsri introduced the odorless durian was not lost on the Western media. If his name sounds familiar to you, you may have overheard his interview on National Public Radio in May 2007. Between March and June he was also featured in Times Magazine, The New York Times, and The Guardian, as well as many other small media-outlets in a journalistic feeding frenzy centered on science’s latest franken-food.
The publicity flooded Dr. Songpol’s mailbox with a little bit of fan mail and a lot of hate mail by durian fans outraged by the seeming perversion of Asia’s signature fruit. With all the hullabaloo and negative media coverage, I’m actually quite surprised that Dr. Songpol still answers email requests for interviews by unknown and unpublished wannabe freelance journalists from the States. He not only answered, but spent two afternoons showing us around his 500 acre durian playground. Self-proclaimed durian advocates may protest his work, but Dr. Songpol is the biggest durian fan of them all.
Dr. Songpol was born on a durian farm near the research center in Chanthaburi, Thailand, and seems to have merged his life completely with the fruit. He is Thailand’s premier durian expert, and has a love of durian that goes beyond simply eating the fruit, although he likes that too even after twenty years of consuming durians nearly every day. His work requires him to sample thousands of durians a year, sometimes hundreds in a single day.
This doesn’t seem to have dampened his enthusiasm. While strolling through the orchards he spotted a fallen durian and made a beeline for it, giving a little exclamation of surprise and pleasure. Later, under the shade of his test plot of possible thornless varieties, he cracked it open and proceeded to eat with an enjoyment seldom expressed by anyone besides me and Rob.
It seems strange that a man with such devotion to the durian would be the one to take away it’s infamous smell. And he didn’t. The truth is that the odorless durian, named Chanthaburi #1, was a simply the result of controlled cross-pollination. Dr. Songpol mixed the pollen of four different varieties in 90 combinations, planting 7,000 of the resulting seedlings. Just one of those was the odorless durian. As cross-pollination naturally occurs between durian varieties, Dr. Songpol could be termed the “discoverer” of the odorless durian instead of the “creator”, which sounds a lot less like a Frankenstein-esque battle of man vs. nature. (Edit: In fact, when we visited Vietnam 4 months later we found a naturally occurring odorless durian).
Dr. Songpol may be the only person out there with enough patience and die-hard devotion to embark on such a project. He had to wait more than 8 years before he could taste (and smell) the results of his cross-breeding program. This long maturation period of a durian tree is the reason that there are few researchers currently willing to commit enough time and energy to a fruit, and a stinky one at that.
The smell of the durian is largely what contributes to its rich flavor, and there are many who doubt that an odorless durian can taste like anything but a saccharine . Admittedly, I am also skeptical of the Chanthaburi #1’s flavor quality as in my experience a durian with no smell is a durian not worth eating. Dr. Songpol insists
that it actually has a very good flavor, which he describes as “sweet and nutty” and believes will appeal to those who can’t stand durian’s more interesting (or disgusting) subtleties of flavor. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to taste the Chanthaburi #1 as last year a marauding elephant came down from the mountain and destroyed the only mature tree. I guess he read about it in the New York Times and felt the need to do something.
We did get to taste the next durian in line, Dr. Songpol’s Chanthaburi #2. A hybrid of the popular varieties Puangmanee and Chanee, Chanthaburi #2 combines a bright yellow orange color with a bitter-sweet flavor. The flesh was incredibly smooth and so dense it was almost hard to swallow, making me finally understand what people mean when they say that durian is “sticky”. Dr. Songpol obviously enjoyed it, widening his eyes with each bite and emitting the same high-pitched noise of pleasure. “Hmmm! Hmmmm! Yummy!”
For now, Chanthaburi #2 will be marketed to Malaysia and Singapore, where it’s small size, gorgeous orange-tinged color and strong flavor will appeal while its odorless cousin is still being tested for marketability in the USA, Europe, and Australia, where the fruit is still relatively unknown. It seems that Dr. Songpol’s odorless discovery, as unpalatable as it is to those already in love with durian, may be the variety that can introduce durian to the world. Now that’s an appropriate legacy for a true durian fanatic.