With its spiky skin and an odour so offensive that it’s often likened to smelly sports socks, the poor old durian is much-maligned by many yet for others it’s the most beloved and most heavenly fruit around.
How many other pieces of fruit provoke authorities into erecting signs forbidding their presence on transport, in shopping malls, in hotel rooms, and in, well, just about every public space, going as far as to fine durian fans guilty of permeating places with the fruit’s not-so-fragrant obnoxious scent.
Yet while the durian is as adored as it is abhorred across South East Asia – its sweet yellow flesh eaten fresh and used in desserts, snack foods, and even curries – it’s never been as popular as the mango.
The mango is most typically described as sublime, and, at the start of the mango season, is sold by the mountain-load at stalls on every street here in Bangkok. Mango and sticky rice is the street food sweet that’s most rhapsodised over by expats and visitors. But for locals, it’s the durian.
Durian is Hot, Mango is Not – The Durian Lady in Chinatown Bangkok
In a recent issue, BK magazine placed durians at the top of its ‘hot’ list, along with Saudi women drivers and crappy wine pubs, while the mango was relegated to the ‘not’ list, with Air India and Thong Lor’s themed pubs. (Fun list, that one.)
That same evening, as we did a street food stall hop through Chinatown Bangkok, we noticed not one but half a dozen busy stalls selling durians by the truckload. Durian was well and truly in season!
One particular business – two pick-ups parked parallel to each other on Yaowarat Road – was so busy with customers crowded around their trucks placing their durian orders, they had an operation in place to deal with the rush that was so well-drilled it resembled a factory assembly line.
From the back of one truck, a young man tested the ripeness of each durian by hitting it with a long stick. Durians continue to ripen for several days after picked, and their level of ripeness is judged by the sound.
Tested, the bloke lightly threw the fruit to his pretty colleague who stood on the road between the two vehicles. As soon as she caught the fruit, she quickly passed it onto a guy on the back of the adjoining truck.
He, in turn, stacked the durians behind the sweet-faced old durian lady who was in charge of sales.
The durian lady listened attentively to each customer’s order before testing each durian again for herself by hitting it with her own long stick and listening to the sound.
Once satisfied she had found the right durian for her customer (different people prefer different degrees of ripeness), the old woman swiftly sliced it to size, served it – with or without sticky rice – and handed it over with a proud smile.
On a road selling what is some of the city’s best street food, it is the fresh durian that is most exciting the crowds right now.