Ooh that Smell: Designing a Stinkless Durian

Chantaburi No. 1, sliced open i i

hide captionChantaburi No. 1, the world's first non-smelly durian, comes from a single tree planted in Thailand 18 years ago. This year's harvest produced just 13 fruit, including this one.

Michael Sullivan, NPR
Chantaburi No. 1, sliced open

Chantaburi No. 1, the world's first non-smelly durian, comes from a single tree planted in Thailand 18 years ago. This year's harvest produced just 13 fruit, including this one.

Michael Sullivan, NPR
Dr. Songpol Somsri stands next to his Chantaburi No. 1 tree. i i

hide captionDr. Songpol Somsri, a researcher at the Horticulture Research Institute, stands next to the Chantaburi No. 1 "less smelly" durian tree at a research station in Chantaburi province in eastern Thailand.

Michael Sullivan, NPR
Dr. Songpol Somsri stands next to his Chantaburi No. 1 tree.

Dr. Songpol Somsri, a researcher at the Horticulture Research Institute, stands next to the Chantaburi No. 1 "less smelly" durian tree at a research station in Chantaburi province in eastern Thailand.

Michael Sullivan, NPR
Durian hybrids grow on a tree at the research station. i i

hide captionDurian hybrids grow on a tree at the research station.

Michael Sullivan, NPR
Durian hybrids grow on a tree at the research station.

Durian hybrids grow on a tree at the research station.

Michael Sullivan, NPR
Durians, popular in Asia, are sold on a street in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. i i

hide captionDurians, popular in Asia, are sold on a street in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Michael Sullivan, NPR
Durians, popular in Asia, are sold on a street in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Durians, popular in Asia, are sold on a street in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Michael Sullivan, NPR
Fresh durians wrapped in pieces are for sale at a street stall in Bangkok. i i

hide captionFresh durians wrapped in pieces are for sale at a street stall in Bangkok's Chinatown.

Michael Sullivan, NPR
Fresh durians wrapped in pieces are for sale at a street stall in Bangkok.

Fresh durians wrapped in pieces are for sale at a street stall in Bangkok's Chinatown.

Michael Sullivan, NPR

Asians call it the king of fruits, but to many its "stinky fruit." The flavor of durian is sweet, but the odor is almost overwhelmingly foul. One scientist is hoping to erase that smell to make the fruit more popular, both at home and abroad.

Durians are much loved in Asia but are not tolerated in most Asian hotels, on airplanes or on the subway. They are large and green and covered in hard, spiky thorns. If dragons really existed, this would be their fruit. The stench of a ripe durian, like a dragon's breath, is enough to make some people gag.

Researcher Songpol Somsri of Thailand's Horticultural Research Institute probably knows more about durians than just about anyone. He grew up on a durian farm and has studied them all his life.

But this Johnny Appleseed of durians concedes that even he doesn't like their strong smell. If it's too strong, he doesn't want to eat them.

Songpol has embarked on a mission to rid the durian of its distinctive, pungent aroma. In doing so, he also hopes to boost exports and make durians more popular at home, too. Much of his work is being done at a government research station in Chantaburi province, about 200 miles from the capital, Bangkok.

Songpol's enthusiasm is evident as he leads a visitor through rows of durians at the station, several thousand trees in all. He's spent about 20 years here, crossing and recrossing different varieties — more than 90 altogether — before coming up with what he calls Chantaburi No. 1, the world's first non-smelly durian.

There is only one tree, planted 18 years ago. It only produces about a dozen fruit a year, but Songpol is convinced he's got a winner.

But 20 miles up the road, the manager of the Sunshine Fruit Co., a major durian exporter, isn't convinced.

Swanzea Banchee says he thinks the idea could definitely help increase orders from abroad. But, he says, you'd never catch him eating one. If a durian doesn't have a smell, then it isn't really a durian, he adds.

In Bangkok, consumers interviewed on a street in Chinatown had mixed reactions to Songpol's Chantaburi No. 1.

Siwa, a 75-year-old retiree, is skeptical. Without the smell, a durian wouldn't taste right, he says. But 22-year-old shopper Shuchada Sukkai said she would enthusiastically eat a stinkless durian.

Back at the research station, Songpol says he's confident that the Chantaburi No. 1 will be a hit. If government approval comes this year, as expected, he says the first commercial crops could be ready in a few years.

And just in case traditionalists shun the non-smelly durian, Songpol is ready — with a hybrid he calls Chantaburi No. 3.

In the meantime, he has another plan in the works: an odorless and thornless durian. He's not sure what he'll call that creation, since the name durian comes from the Malay word for thorn.

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