Ooh that Smell: Designing a Stinkless Durian Asians call it the king of fruits, but many call it stinky fruit. The flavor of durian is sweet, but the odor is almost overwhelmingly foul. It's a smell that a Thai scientist is hoping to erase to make the fruit more popular, both at home and abroad.
NPR logo

Ooh that Smell: Designing a Stinkless Durian

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/10016534/10134724" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Ooh that Smell: Designing a Stinkless Durian

Ooh that Smell: Designing a Stinkless Durian

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/10016534/10134724" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, the enticing stories of Scheherazade.

But first, a report on what many Asians call the king of fruits, the durian. The flavor of the durian is sweet but the odor, ooh. It's a smell that one scientist is hoping to erase to make the fruit more popular, both at home and abroad.

NPR's Southeast Asia correspondent Michael Sullivan reports.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: In my house, we call it stinky fruit, and we're not the only ones. 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 and if dragons really existed, this would be their fruit. And the stench of a ripe durian, like a dragon's breath, is enough to make some people gag.

Mr. DONALD BERGER(ph) (Chef, Restaurant Owner): Oh, they stink. They are wretched, really awful. No, it's very close to vomit and feces.

SULLIVAN: Donald Berger is a chef and a restaurant owner who's lived in the region for the past 15 years and has never gotten used to the durian smell.

Mr. BERGER: The flavor - it's quite interesting. It's quite rich and very custardy and creamy. In the mouth, it is very nice. It's not bad. You can get it down. But in the nose, you can't get past through it.

SULLIVAN: Songpol Somsri of Thailand's Horticultural Research Institute probably knows more about durians than just about anyone. He is the Johnny Appleseed of durians, a man who grew up on a durian farm and a man with a deep, dark durian secret.

Mr. SONGPOL SOMSRI (Researcher, Horticultural Research Institute): I don't like the strong smell. I don't want to eat a strong-smelled durian.

SULLIVAN: Songpol has embarked on a mission to rid the durian of its distinctive, pungent aroma to boost exports and to 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.

Mr. SOMSRI: Okay. (Speaking in foreign language)

SULLIVAN: Songpol's enthusiasm is evident as he leads a visitor through rows of durian trees at the station, several thousand trees in all. He spent about 20 years here, crossing and re-crossing 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- and it only produces about a dozen fruit a year. But Songpol is convinced he's got a winner.

Mr. SOMSRI: Sweet and creamy, and the texture is fine.

SULLIVAN: When you get rid of the smell, don't you get rid of the taste too?

Mr. SOMSRI: Smell less but the taste, they're good - better. But some old people like the smelly durian. But the new generation, maybe don't like the smell.

SULLIVAN: This years crop, all 13 of them, was harvested about a week ago. But Songpol has saved one as evidence to back up his claim - and cracks it open when we get back to the barn, revealing the two pieces of yellow fleshy fruit inside.

Mr. SOMSRI: You see? The color, really good. And almost no smell.

SULLIVAN: I guess we'll have to try, huh?

Mr. SOMSRI: Yeah, you can try.

SULLIVAN: Not bad. Very sweet.

Mr. SOMSRI: Very sweet, yes.

SULLIVAN: And this is the future, you think?

Mr. SOMSRI: Yes, the future.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

SULLIVAN: Songpol may think this is the future, but 20 miles up the road, the manager of the Sunshine Fruit Company, a major durian exporter, isn't convinced.

Mr. SWANZEA BANCHEE (Manager, Sunshine Fruit Company): (Speaking in foreign language)

SULLIVAN: Thirty-three-year-old Swanzea Banchee says he thinks the idea could definitely help increase orders from abroad, but you'd never catch me eating one, he says. If a durian doesn't have a smell, then it isn't really a durian.

But what about the consumers back in the capital, Bangkok. Shoppers at one Chinatown street stall piled high with fresh durian had wildly different ideas about researcher Songpol's Chantaburi No. 1.

75-year-old Siwa, a retiree, doesn't think it will work at all.

SIWA (Retiree, Bangkok): Impossible. Impossible. Wouldn't taste right. No taste at all if no smell.

SULLIVAN: He claims that it tastes just as good.

SIWA: No. No. No. No. I don't think so.

SULLIVAN: But the durian vendor says she has lots of requests she can't fill for less stinky durians. From young people like this shopper, 22-year-old Shuchada Sukkai.

Ms. SHUCHADA SUKKAI (Shopper, Bangkok): I don't like the durian because its smell is not good.

SULLIVAN: But do you like the taste?

Ms. SUKKAI: Yeah. Sure.

SULLIVAN: So this man who is making the Chantaburi No. 1, not smelly durian, you think that's a good idea?

Ms. SUKKAI: Yeah. It's good idea.

SULLIVAN: 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 time.

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

Mr. SOMSRI: Smelly. Oh, smelly.

SULLIVAN: So you've got the whole export range figured out. People who would want not smelly durians, you have the Chantaburi No. 1; people who want smelly durians, you have Chantaburi No. 3.

Mr. SOMSRI: Yes.

SULLIVAN: And people somewhere in the middle, you have…

Ms. SOMSRI: Maybe Chantaburi No. 2.

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

Any ideas?

Mr. SONGPOL: No. No. Not yet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SONGPOL: Thai durian.

SULLIVAN: Michael Sullivan, NPR News.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.