Sometimes we do pretty silly things for durian. If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you know that already.
But this one takes the cake. Almost literally.
This time we spent $300 on one durian.
Years ago, when Rob and I first went to Nonthaburi hoping for just a glimpse of the most expensive durian in the world, we wondered out loud who on earth would spend $300 on a durian.
Well. Um. Us apparently.
I got the call late Thursday evening, the night after Rob left for America to visit family. I was in bed already, and I almost didn’t pick up.
It was the translator we’ve been hiring on and off to help us make phone calls in Thailand. “So do you want it or not?” she asked. My heart started beating hard. I felt caught between fear of spending that much on a durian and intense curiosity. My mouth suddenly felt dry. I licked my lips and said. “Yes. I’ll be there tomorrow.”
Two years after first hearing about the famous durian, I was getting one. I couldn’t believe it.
A Ganyao from Nonthaburi is the most expensive durian in the world, unless the mythic Elephant Drop Durian actually exists. A Nonthaburi Ganyao can cost as much as 20,000 baht, or about $600. There are very few of them and you either have to be the right person or know the right person to get one. Usually, only top governmental officials and the very wealthy have the means and connections.
In fact, while I was at the farm blowing our budget, a royal servant came to pick up a durian for the King and Queen of Thailand. It was fun to picture the Queen savoring each morsel, her rubied fingers besmeared with yellow cream. Here’s a picture of the royal durian at the farm.
It was quite a crowd to be hobnobbing with for a girl whose sandals are held together with copious amounts of superglue.
I didn’t want to taste such a special durian alone, and since Rob couldn’t be there with me I emailed food blogger and durian lover Mark Wiens from migrationology.com. Mark loves durian so much when he got married last summer they served durian in place of wedding cake (brilliant idea). I hoped he could use his discriminating tasting skills to help me decide if a Nonthaburi durian is actually any better than the normal durian distributed to all you unprivileged commoners.
Mark, his wife, and our translator took a taxi to a specified meeting point where the durian grower would pick us up. As we sat at the small outdoor cafe, waiting for the farmer, we joked that it was like a drug deal, replete with a pocket bulging with bills. I had butterflies, it felt so unreal.
|Mark from migrationology.com|
When Rob and I first visited Nonthaburi two years ago, we were told that we would probably never even set eyes on the elite durian. Such durians are not sold at markets. They are reserved months in advance, when the durians are merely petite green potential. Big wigs (like us now) go directly to the farm to pick up the fruits, which can cost as much as 20,000 baht, or $617 USD.
That already sounds like a lot for a fruit, but let me put the price in perspective. According to Thailand’s National Statistical Office, the average monthly household income in Thailand is 25,403 baht per month, or about $785 USD.
It’s like if someone in the United States paid $2,657* for a really good watermelon. Would you do it?
*According to the US Census Bureau, the 2012 average monthly salary was $3,380. You can check my math if you want to.
Maybe if it was encrusted with edible gold, if this list of the world’s most expensive food gives any insight into human psychology.
A Nonthaburi Ganyao doesn’t come with extra jewelry. It’s just a durian. But there are a few reasons why it comes with that jaw-dropping price tag.
Durians from Nonthaburi have been famous for at least 400 years. It’s the place all commercial durian varieties – Monthong, Chanee, and Ganyao – originated. There’s something whimsical about Nonthaburi, like it’s some mythical durian Eden.
The orchards are quiet havens within the city, criss-crossed by green canals and narrow bridges. The canals are an unusual feature for a durian orchard – I’ve only seen them once elsewhere, in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. But it’s not the canals themselves that make the orchard special. It’s the nearby Chao Phraya River, which is tidal. That means every day the canals are flooded with a mixture of fresh water and sea water, said to impart minerals and a special, slightly salty flavor to the durians.
The durians themselves are babied from their conception – covered in plastic bags and wire to keep out squirrels and rain, perfumed with mothballs to scare away insects, fed with homemade fertilizer concocted of fish parts, molasses, and yeast, and even covered with a pretty painted umbrellas to protect them from the intense tropical sun. They’ve never been touched with any kind of chemical.
But like $200 blocks of Swedish Moose Cheese (actual food, no joke), the main reason they’re so expensive is simply because they’re a rarity. Encroaching development from Bangkok, high land prices and my generation’s general disinterest in farming had already taken a toll when a massive flood in 2011 killed off 90% of the remaining trees.
Add the fact that the trees are thinned to only 3-4 durians per tree, in order to enure high sugar content and nutrient density in each fruit, and you can gather that there really aren’t very many durians grown in Nonthaburi.
At one point, Rob and I even wondered if Nonthaburi durians still existed at all, or if they were a myth, a residual memory from the days of the great Ayutthaya Kings. We’d never met anyone who’d eaten one. But then, how many people do you know who have eaten the $145 hot dog? Or, for that matter, the 5,000 Euro cantaloupe? (Still not joking).
Then in 2013 I got in contact with Nonthaburi’s Department of Agriculture. I was looking for some other information about durian varieties, and after being transferred a bewildering number of times found myself talking to the head of the department. He invited me to visit Nonthaburi to see their orchards.
That’s how I met Mrs. Maliwan. Standing barefoot in the orchard with a shy, sweet smile, she didn’t seem like a durian tycoon. She’d worked in the orchard all her life, leaving school in the 8th grade to help her family full time. As she explained how to make fertilizer, or talked about the hard work of scooping soil from the bottom of the canals to make the mounded rows for the trees, she
had an aura of rustic peacefulness that put me at ease.
Yet her farm supplies durian to the royal palace and is frequented by the upper echelons of Thailand, some of whom were already there when Mark, his wife, our translator and I arrived at the farm. Mrs. Maliwan was giving a short tour of the orchard, and the four of us trailed after them as they happily snapped photos of themselves with the plastic-wrapped durians hanging from trees, laughing, clutching their handbags and tripping over the uneven ground.
|See the durian’s pretty parasol?|
At last it came time to hand over the cash and get our fruit. As I counted out the shiny pink and silver 1,000 baht bills – all 10 of them – Mrs. Maliwan presented the durian to us. It was perfectly round, with the thick long stem typical of a Ganyao durian. It had been cut earlier that day, and the stem was still green and sticky with sap. She suggested we eat it in three days.
I was dismayed. I was leaving the next day for Malaysia. What would I do with an unripe durian? And more importantly, how could Mark help me determine whether or not a Nonthaburi durian tastes any different than a durian grown anywhere else?
Luckily, Mrs. Maliwan also had a few extra Monthong durians for the measly cost of 1,000 baht each. Sure, that’s what Rob and I normally pay for two or even three nights of accommodation, but after shelling out ten crisp bills just one felt like nothing.
Mrs. Maliwan cut it open while we hovered around in anticipation, Mark’s finger punching his camera’s button in rapid succession. Finally, someone who takes as many pictures of durian as me!
The durian was gorgeous. It was a nice pale yellow, just the way a Monthong should be. Slightly soft to the touch, with a firm, dry layer surrounding the gooey interior. It tasted buttery, and very sweet. And just slightly salty.
I don’t eat a lot of Monthong, because it’s not usually my favorite durian. So it was difficult for me to say just how great this one was compared to other Monthongs. It certainly was a good one. I actually liked it, something I can’t say for every Monthong I’ve eaten. Mark thought it was great. He’ll share his thoughts about the Nonthaburi durian tomorrow on his blog.
As for this pricey guy? My 10,000 baht Nonthaburi Ganyao? What did I do with him?
Check back on Friday to find out! (I know, I know, cliffhangers are so frustrating!)
EDIT: The follow-up story, in which I smuggle the durian on an overnight train to Malaysia, is here.
So for now, tell me: What was your most extravagant edible buy? And was it worth it?