Sweet smell of Asia's forbidden fruit kicks up a stink

YOU can take the sugar out of soft drinks and the fat from junk food, but eliminate the pungent odour from what may be the world's smelliest fruit and you court international controversy.

The durian, a spiky fruit which grows in south-east Asia, has been variously described by its detractors as smelling like garbage, mouldy cheese or rotting fish. It is banned from many hotels, airlines and the Singapore subway.

But durian lovers - and there are many, at least in Asia - are convinced that like fine French cheeses, the worse the smell, the better the taste.

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Under the durian's hardy shell are sections of pale yellow flesh with a consistency that can be as soft and oozy as custard and a flavour that is nutty and sweet with hints of vanilla and an occasional bitter bite.

"To anyone who doesn't like durian it smells like a bunch of dead cats," said Bob Halliday, a food writer in Bangkok. "But as you get to appreciate durian, the smell is not offensive at all. It's attractive. It makes you drool like a mastiff."

Nevertheless, a Thai government scientist, who after three decades of research is one of the world's leading durian experts, now says he has managed to excise its stink.

Working at an orchard near the Cambodian border, Songpol Somsri crossed more than 90 varieties of durian, many found only in the wild, and came up with a fruit that he says smells as mild as a banana.

He named it Chantaburi No1, after his home province.

It will please Thai consumers, he says, and might help broaden the acceptability of the durian, unlocking the door to new American and European customers who, like an increasing number of Thais, are likely to reject a fruit that reeks like last season's unwashed gym socks.

Durian lovers complain that the fruit is being homogenised like the insipid tomatoes bred to look pretty behind plastic wrapping.

"I don't think it's possible to make a durian that doesn't smell," said Somchai Tadchang, the owner of a durian orchard on Kret, an island on the Chao Phraya river north of Bangkok, where special Gan Yao (long stem) durians sell for more than $40 each, the equivalent of several days' wages for a labourer here.

"Anyway, durians actually smell good," he said. "Only rotten durians stink."

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The odourless durian, which has not yet been officially unveiled, will obtain final approval in the coming weeks from Thailand's Ministry of Agriculture.

The concept is even more mystifying to those who live in Malaysia, Singapore or Indonesia, where durians are prized for their odour and priced accordingly.

"The smell must come out from the durian," said Chang Peik Seng, owner of a durian farm on Penang, a Malaysian island. "If the durian doesn't have a strong smell the customer only pays one-third the price."

To answer his traditionalist critics, Songpol says he has developed a separate durian that might please Malaysians and Indonesians. The pungent smell of that durian, Chantaburi No3, develops three days after the fruit is picked, allowing for odourless transport.

There is probably no other fruit that elicits such passion - and revulsion - as the durian.

The litany of legends and myths surrounding what Malaysians call the "king of fruits" is long and colourful. The durian is said to be an aphrodisiac: when the durians fall down, the sarongs fly up, goes a Malay saying.

But woe to those who overindulge.

Rarely does durian season pass without newspapers somewhere in south-east Asia reporting a durian death. The fruit, which is rich in carbohydrates, protein, fat and sulphurous compounds (thus the smell), is said here to be "heaty", and can therefore be deadly for those with high blood pressure.

Tradition also dictates that mixing alcohol with durian should be avoided at all costs.

"Durian makes you hot and alcohol makes you hot, so it's double heat," said Somchai, the orchard owner.

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