Recently I did something new. Instead of just getting myself lost in a remote part of Thailand, I took a bunch of other people with me on a Thailand durian tour.
Luckily there was plenty of amazing durian, so nobody complained.
Last week I attended this amazing event called the Thai Fruit Festival, which took place in Chiang Mai. I have a very cool t-shirt to prove it.
It was a meeting of fruit enthusiasts and health nuts and durian maniacs, and quite a lot of durian was consumed. Some of the worst durian ever, mind you. It was like a fascinating psychological study watching newbies gleefully rip open durians half-rotten with phytophtora, getting giggly over Monthongs so old and watery the durians themselves looked ready to cry.
It was truly a testament to the powerful allure of durian.
Durian doesn’t grow in Chiang Mai. The elevation is too high, and its just too cold and dry. So most of the durian was overflow from Rayong, a long distance away. But just a few hours south of Chiang Mai is one of my favorite places in Thailand, the hidden duriantopia of Laplae, in the province of Uttaradit.
The last day of the festival, six of us rented a minivan from Chiang Mai and made the four hour drive to Uttaradit. It was the most comfortable way I have ever traveled in Thailand. Cruising along a smooth highway on the plush sheet of the van, chatting with my friend Brittany and listening to some great Thai reggae, I almost felt like we could be in the United States.
Except the driver was on the wrong side. And all the signs were in Thai. Oh, and we were eating fresh durian in the car.
It was a great trip.
When we arrived, we headed straight to the durian market. It was peak season, and the market was flooded with durian. After the durian desert of Chiang Mai, we spilled out of the car and made a beeline to the fruits. It had been a long, anticipatory drive.
I gave a quick tutorial on how to differentiate between durian varieties and chose a beautiful looking Chanee.
Except for Brittany, who had attended my durianlicious birthday party a few weeks earlier, no one had really tasted a durian before. They’d been eating half-ripe Ganyaos and Monthongs dressed in copious amounts of ripening agent, thinking they were eating durian.
I will forever treasure the look on their faces as they bit into their first really good durian.
After we’d had our fill, we met up with my friend Julian for lunch. Julian is a German expat who has been living in this Thai nowheresville for 10 years. I’m still not certain how he found Laplae, but it’s a gorgeous, quiet, peaceful place and I understand why he stayed. It’s because of Julian that I was able to explore Laplae the first time, and return with friends this year.
Durian Thai Salad (Som Tam)
For lunch we hit up a restaurant nearby Mae Phun Waterfall, which prepared a special pounded durian salad for us. Som Tam is a national Thai salad dish. Although it originated in the north, it can now be found everywhere in Thailand. It literally means “pounded salad” and can consist of just about any fruit or vegetable, as long as its properly bruised with a wooden pestle and mushed with chilies, garlic, and lime juice.
Durian Som Tam is harder to find. I first tasted it last year at the Laplae Durian Festival. It’s made with chunks of immature durian, which when pounded takes on a strange, soft yet rubbery texture that reminds me of mozzarella cheese or sweet, firm tofu. Added to crisp slivers of carrot, cucumber, green papaya, green beans, and tomatoes, it’s a savory, spicy, and surprisingly delicious take on my favorite flavor: durian.
Julian even got us in the kitchen to learn how to make Som Tam. He was a great teacher, helping us master the Thai language and learn the more subtle rules of Thai etiquette.
After lunch, the group cooled off in the waterfall next to the restaurant.
We stayed the night at a small local homestay, nestled in a mountain valley between pomelo, longkong and mangosteen trees. Then in the morning, we headed out to visit the group’s first durian farm.
I was excited and nervous. For the first time, I was inviting a bunch of people into my world – would they think it boring? After all, the entire morning was spent tromping up and down a hill looking at trees.
Oh, and picking up stray durian.
When we finished the tour of the orchard, gazing up at trees at least forty years old and admiring the verdant mountains beyond, we settled down in the farmer’s work area to munch on our morning’s findings.
This was the really fun part, because the durians we picked up had fallen from the trees that morning. They were fresh and green and had a wonderful, earthy aroma of coffee grounds, wet leaves, and caramel. Their stems were wet and sticky.
This little detail alone should make your mouth start watering.
I think this was when my friends understood just what a durian can be.
These durians were a far cry from the bloated and sickly looking durians in Chiang Mai. They were full-bodied, dense and sticky. Unlike Malaysian varieties, they were not terribly bitter, but had a pleasant sweet milkiness to them, like whipped cream, and just a hint of that awe inspiring tingle – the numbing. Yeah.
Everyone left Laplae with a great taste in their mouth.We’d had a great time, and though little had been planned well, all had gone well.
The advice Julian had given me a few days before, to relax, was totally wise. And as the trip kept being more and more fun, I did relax.
But the best part was showing people in person all these things that I write to you about every day. How to choose a durian, and taste the subtle levels of flavors, and appreciate the intricacies of how it grows that can make a great durian (or not). We talked about the many mysteries of durian – why it makes you feel warm, and why one side can taste so differently than the other.
I think everyone left with a greater appreciation for durian, and I left with a greater appreciation for just how much I enjoy sharing what I know about durian with you