If you live in Australia or Canada and you've ever purchased a frozen durian, chances are it passed through Sunshine International's factory in Chanthaburi, Thailand. The company is the largest supplier of frozen durian in Australia, sold under the brand "Fruit King", and has a large presence in Canada as well, shipping four 18 tonne containers across the Pacific each month.
Sunshine is proud of their reputation as an innovation powerhouse. They were the first Thai company to export frozen durian, and more recently, the first to export freeze-dried durian. They look forward to future developments in creating an ever better product, and are working to meet standards for organic certification. Sadly, their high-quality frozen fruits are not yet available in the United States. However, the company would be thrilled to begin shipping durian to the USA. Any interested durian buyers should contact Natawat Kunklin, the Senior Overseas Representative and the person I contacted when I inquired about a tour of the factory.
Mr. Kunklin introduced himself by his nickname, Pahn, when we met him in front of the giant durian statue that graces the Chanthaburi factory. A stylish young businessman who works in the Bangkok office, Pahn and his co-worker Paht, the Manager of the Marketing Department, drove the four hours to Chanthaburi to give Rob and me a tour of the factory and the company's 120 acre orchard. He says that a love of durian is a requirement to work for Sunshine, and when we revealed that we had not yet tasted a fresh Monthong durian, he jumped at the chance to share one.
Monthong is the only variety of durian that is currently shipped overseas. When I asked Pahn why, he said, "Because Monthong is the best!" However, it is a combination of factors specific to the Monthong variety that have made it's "golden pillows" so popular both in Thailand and abroad.
|Rob holding a 7 kilo Monthong in Java|
The Monthong is one of the largest durians, weighing as much as 15 kilos. Most importantly, the Monthong is renown for its hefty flesh-to-seed ratio, making it perfect for processing into durian chips or other products. In Indonesia, some people preferred it over local varieties because you get more durian for your money. While other durians vary in flavor and texture depending on where they're grown, the monthong is invariably sweet, firm, and nutty, with the pale yellow color that is pleasing to the eye. These factors combine to create the perfect product to ship overseas.
See what 300 tonnes of durian looks like
I had experienced crunchy durian at the Chanthaburi's Horticultural Research Center, and was prepared to dislike an under ripe Monthong. I was surprised; the fruit was as sweet as vanilla frosting and had a mild almond flavor. The firm flesh peeled off the seed easily, and had a pleasant smooth texture. Most of all I enjoyed how clean the eating experience was - so clean, actually, that I almost didn't feel like I was eating durian at all.
"How is it?" Pahn asked, watching our faces. "Delicious," Rob acknowledged appreciatively. Pahn dived for the plate. "Let me try!"
|Durians ripen in crates for as long as 5 days|
The durians are harvested unripe over several days, and arrive at the factory late at night in trucks loaded high with dangerous cargo. The fruits are inspected for quality, and then the stems are painted with a yellow ethylene-releasing liquid and left to ripen in large metal crates. After a few days the fruits are sorted for ripeness by a team of "durian identifier specialists" who tap the durians with a long wooden baton tipped in clear rubber. They can tell by the sound whether or not the durian is ripe. The fruits are given a 10 minute bath in chlorinated water to clean and sterilize, and then sorted. Those with a symmetrical shape are frozen whole at -40 degrees Celsius, while "alien shape" fruits, those with a lopsided or just plain odd exterior, are cut up for vacuum-sealed frozen durian or freeze-dried durian.
After a tour of the warehouse and factory, Pahn took us to Sunshine's newly acquired orchard so we could see a durian harvest. Monthong durians take an average of 120 days from flower to mature fruit. Workers keep track of the flowering, and then harvest all the durians in one fell swoop. It was pouring rain when we arrived, so we took the opportunity to eat a little more durian and watch the farm workers load into trucks the piles of thorny spheres that sprawled across the floor. Although Pahn has worked for Sunshine for 5 years, he had never visited a durian farm before, and was fascinated.
When the rain stopped, we wandered a little way into the trees to watch the harvest. An old man climbed a bamboo ladder into the tree, and then monkeyed around cutting the durians off with a knife. Below him, a 17-year-old boy held a folded burlap cloth. "Ow!" the boy shouted, and then the old man sliced off a durian, which the boy deftly caught in the burlap cloth. "Ow!" Another durian. Rob wondered what the boy would say if he missed and got clobbered by a 3 kilo falling spike ball.
At the next tree everyone was invited to get into the action. Pahn and Rob took turns catching the durian in the burlap cloth, which I thought was a brave thing to do. I climbed the waving, wobbly bamboo ladder up to a big green durian, and then waited for the "Ow!" to twist it off and drop it. Bamboo is such a flexible material, it felt like the ladder was constantly shifting and I was afraid of the ladder falling backwards even though the old man held the bottom for me.
|Rob takes a turn harvesting durian|
As a parting gift, the owner of the factory, Miss Sainamphung, gave us a huge bag of freeze-dried fruits. Her name translates as "Honey", and her name fits her kind, smiling demeanor. She and her Taiwanese husband, Liu Piner, attribute their company's success to creativity and constant innovation, and are currently exploring other uses for durian and its waste products, such as turning the rinds into paper or toothpaste. I asked her what she would like to tell Americans about the durian fruit. She paused, struggling to find the right words in English, and said "The potential of durian is so much more than what you can imagine. It's more than just a fruit, the potential is so great we haven't discovered it yet." Then she laughed and said, "If you think of durian, think of Fruit King, Sunshine, and our frozen durian!"