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. Rob and I have eaten our fair share of frozen Thai durian from Asian grocery stores, and we wanted to see the process of farm to factory for ourselves. Just where does our durian come from?
The Senior Overseas Representative himself met us at the factory in Chanthaburi. A stylish young businessman, he introduced himself by his nickname, Pahn. He and his coworker Paht, the Manager of the Marketing Department, had made the four hour drive from the Bangkok Head Office just to show us around the factory and durian orchard. I was honored, and a bit intimidated.
Sunshine was the first company to export frozen durian, and just recently they innovated the first exports of freeze-dried durian as well. Even though they don’t yet market in America, I’d actually eaten their durian while visiting friends in Australia a few years ago. I’d loved their logo so much I’d kept the tag as a souvenir, and hung it on my refrigerator when we got back to the USA. It was very cool to be walking around the factory where the tag and the durian originated.
Pahn walked us out onto the floor, a huge, sprawling warehouse stacked high with durian. I’d never seen so much durian in my life. In fact, I’d never imagined so much durian could exist in one place! Pahn estimated we were looking at about 300 tonnes of durian. Around 70 tonnes enters the warehouse each and every day of the 20 day season. A second season in southern Thailand occurs in August, when the company picks up an additional 10,000 tonnes.
Every single one of those durians is a Monthong. The company only deals in Monthong because it’s the only type of durian currently considered suitable for export overseas. When I asked Pahn why, he said, “Because Monthong is the best!” Then he found out that while we’d had plenty of frozen Monthong in America, we’d just arrived in Thailand and hadn’t yet actually tasted a fresh Monthong durian.
Pahn whisked us away from the warehouse to the the conference room, where he introduced us to the Head Durian Identifier Specialist, the man in charge of selecting durians for quality and ripeness. He had picked out two Monthongs at peak perfection to share with us. They were a little…crunchier than I might prefer in a durian, but 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. Even more surprising, there was none of the strong durian odor we’d come to expect from eating durian in Indonesia.
“How is it?” Pahn asked, watching our faces.
“Delicious,” Rob acknowledged appreciatively. Pahn dived for the plate.
“Let me try!” Pahn says that loving durian is a requirement to working for Sunshine.
Various characteristics have helped the Monthong, translated literally as “Golden Pillows”, lead the commercial durian industry. In particular, while other durians vary in flavor and texture depending on where they’re grown, Monthong is invariably sweet, firm, and nutty, with the pale yellow color that is pleasing to the eye. This inherent standardization, as well as it’s huge size (as big as 15 kilos!) and hefty flesh-to-seed ratio which makes it easy to process, combine to create the perfect product to ship overseas.
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 the spiny piles onto trucks.
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.
Want to see what 300 tonnes of durian looks like? Check out our Youtube channel!