Edit: This post was originally published on April 11, 2012, on our first year of Year of the Durian. Dr. Songpol retired from his position at the Chanthaburi Horticultural Resarch Station in 2018.
The controversy that erupted when Dr. Songpol Somsri introduced the Odorless Durian was not lost on 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 miniature 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.
The controversy centered around a named Chanthaburi #1, the first in a series of durians not discovered, but CREATED by Dr. Songpol.
The media clamored over whether this supposedly “odorless durian” could win over the West and open a new market –
– or was this a taming of the Asian spirit to fit Western colonial consumerism?
With all the hullabaloo and negative media coverage, I was shocked when Dr. Songpol not only answered an interview request by a young, unknown and unpublished wannabe-freelance journalist from the United States (me), but also invited us to a media event at the 500-acre durian playground at the Chanthaburi Horticulture Research Station.
Self-proclaimed durian advocates may protest his work, but Dr. Songpol is the biggest durian fan of them all.
About Dr. Songpol
Dr. Songpol was born on a durian farm near the Pliew 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 but true durian freaks.
It seems strange that a scientist with such devotion to the durian would be the one to take away its infamous smell. And he didn’t.
The truth is that the odorless durian, named Chanthaburi #1, was just one genetically random result of 7,000 possibilities.
About the Chanthaburi Series Project
The Chanthaburi Series (Chan #1, Chan #2, Chan #3, etc.) were created to improve the commercial varieties that were (and still are) currently available.
Each variety of current commercial durians has its own set of problems.
Monthong is susceptible to phytophtora and requires a lot of chemicals for production.
Puangmanee isn’t fleshy enough, with a huge seed and a low flesh to seed ratio.
Chanee ripens too fast, cracking open and becoming difficult to transport
And Ganyao has ripening problems whenever it rains. Which, being a later season fruit, is often.
So in 1979, Dr. Songpol took the pollen of 6 varieties (the “Daddies”) and matched them with 6 flowering trees (the “Mommies”) for a total of 90 combinations (Ganyao Daddy with Chanee Mommy, Chanee Daddy with Ganyao Mommy, etc).
The result was 7,000 genetically distinct seeds, which were planted into 7,000 baby trees.
All durian trees are the result of cross-pollinating “Mommy” trees and “Daddy” trees, but the difference was that Dr. Songpol bagged each flower to prevent natural wind or insect pollination from occurring, a practice termed “controlled pollination.”
There are few researchers out there willing to commit enough time and energy to a project like this. Dr. Songpol had to wait more than 8 years before he could taste (and smell) the result of his cross-breeding program. This is why there are so few purposefully created durian hybrids out there.
In 2006, the Department of Agriculture selected 3 of these Chan series durians (Chan #1, Chan #2, and Chan #3) and sent them to volunteer farmers for testing, but in 2012 when we first interviewed Dr. Songpol, it was near and dear to be able to taste one.
Dr. Songpol insists that the famous “odorless durian” is not actually odorless – the “odorless” tagline was just media clickbait.
According to him, Chan #1 smells nice. It’s nutty, sweet, that’s all – none of the onion funk that gets durian aroma confused with gas leaks. And that’s what makes it special
Any durian lover knows that a durian with no smell at all is a durian not worth eating.
So I was curious to now if this durian that doesn’t smell like durian could taste like anything but a saccharine dough ball.
As luck would have it, in 2011 a marauding elephant came down from the mountain and destroyed the only fruiting tree.
I guess he read about it in the New York Times and felt the need to do something.
So I didn’t get to taste Chan #1 until a few seasons later, when the trees had started to give fruits.
And…I’ll hand it to Dr. Songpol, it does smell nice and nutty.
Chan #1 is published. as a hybrid of Monthong and Chanee, but anyone who sees its flat bottom and ribbed prominent sections starts to wonder if a little Kradumthong action snuck into the bag.
The color is lovely, a bright daisy yellow, with a sticky flesh and yes — an almond-like nuttiness that is intensely sweet and almost devoid of any earthy or more complex duriany flavors.
Dr. Songpol pointed out this could be useful in shipping fresh durian, since many airlines ban durian due to the risk of the fire department getting called for a gas leak.
Back in 2012 we did get to taste Dr. Songpol’s Chan #2, which has a slightly later ripening season and has also become more popular than Chan #1.
Chanthaburi #2 is a hybrid of Puangmanee and Chanee and combines Puangmanee’s bright yellow-orange color with the bitter-sweetness of Chanee.
It also as the elongated shape and pointy bottom of Puangmanee.
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!”
Chan #3 is a hybrid of Ganyao and Chanee, and looks like a particularly fat pear from the outside.
Inside are heavy, pale yellow pods with the density of Ganyao and the slight bitterness of Chanee. Many people say this is their favorite of the Chanthaburi Series.
In 2012, Dr. Songpol said the plan was to market Chanthaburi #2 to Malaysia and Singapore, where it’s small size, gorgeous orange-tinged color and strong flavor will appeal while Chan #1 was still being tested for marketability in the USA, Europe, and Australia.
As of editing (2021), the Chan Series. arestill relatively uncommon in the market. The easiest place to try them is at I’m Durian in Bangkok.
But in today’s world of eCommerce and increasing reliance on stay-at-home shopping experiences might benefit from a durian that doesn’t get the Fire Department riled up.
Maybe a durian that smells like Nuts and Sugar can introduce durian to the world. Now that’s an appropriate legacy for a true durian fanatic.
How to Visit the Pliew Chanthaburi Horticultural Research Center
The Chanthaburi Horticultural Research Center is open daily.
Visitors can tour the botanical walking trail or make a booking to see the durian orchards.
Dr. Songpol retired in 2018.