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Originally published April 8, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 8, 2007 at 2:02 AM

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New, sweet fruit sour sight to some

You can take the sugar out of soft drinks and the fat from junk food. But eliminate the pungent odor from what may be the world's smelliest...

The New York Times

TUNG PHAEN, Thailand — You can take the sugar out of soft drinks and the fat from junk food. But eliminate the pungent odor from what may be the world's smelliest fruit and brace for a major controversy.

The durian, a spiky fruit native to Southeast Asia, has been variously described by its detractors as smelling like garbage, moldy 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.

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 flavor 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, the scientist, 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 No. 1, after his home province and the location of the research center.

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.

"Most Thais don't like too strong a smell, except some old people," Songpol said.

Durian lovers are at once disbelieving of and horrified by the prospect of a no-smell durian. They complain that the fruit is being homogenized like the insipid tomatoes bred to look pretty behind plastic wrap.

"I don't think it's possible to make a durian that doesn't smell," said Somchai Tadchang, 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 Thai laborer.

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

Approval is near

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The odorless durian, which has not been officially unveiled, will obtain final approval in 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 odor 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. It took several minutes to explain the concept to Chang, who concluded that odorless durians would not sell in his country. "If the durian doesn't have a strong smell the customer only pays one-third the price," he said.

Songpol says he has developed a separate durian that might please Malaysians and Indonesians. The pungent smell of that durian, Chantaburi No. 3, develops three days after the fruit is picked, allowing for odorless transport.

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

"King of fruits"

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

But woe to those who overindulge. Rarely does durian season pass without newspapers somewhere in Southeast Asia reporting a durian death. The fruit, rich in carbohydrates, protein, fat and sulfurous compounds (thus the smell), is said here to be "heaty," and therefore can be deadly for those with high blood pressure, according to Wilailak Srisura, a nutritionist at Thailand's Department of Health.

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.

Songpol says he has not found a scientific reason that durian and alcohol are incompatible, but would not dare consume both at the same time.

Reared on a durian orchard, Songpol started studying the fruit in 1977 as a graduate student in horticulture. Worried that some varieties were disappearing as cultivation became commercialized, he collected dozens from across the country and planted them at the Chantaburi Horticultural Research Center here. The center is a durian lover's Eden with flower beds and streams rimming the rows of countless durian trees shadowed by low-lying, jungle-covered mountains.

Songpol experimented with hundreds of combinations before discovering Chantaburi No. 1. This year's harvest is not ripe, but those who have smelled and tasted last year's say the fruit has a very faint odor. Saowanee Srisuma, caretaker of the durian orchard, says it is the most innocuous-smelling durian she has encountered in 10 years of working there.

Suchart Vichitrananda, director of the Horticultural Research Center, says Chantaburi No. 1 does not smell, but he hesitates when describing the taste. "I can't say it's better than the original durian, but it'll do."

Many durian lovers fear the odorless variety is another step toward the erosion of durian culture. Durians are a social fruit, traditionally sold and eaten on the roadside by friends.

The fruit is analyzed in the same way that wine is sniffed and discussed at a Parisian dinner party.

These days, durians increasingly are sold ready to eat: removed from their shell and wrapped in cellophane, which reduces the smell.

In Thailand, which has aggressively commercialized the fruit, farmers specialize in Montong, a sweet, almost saccharine variety. Thai farmers use chemicals to coax durian trees to bear fruit in the off-season, so Montong are available year round and are sold around the world. Thailand last year sold 50 million durians abroad, worth about $90 million.

Now at a store near you

Durians have been available in the United States for several decades, mostly at Asian groceries. The United States last year imported nearly 1,000 metric tons of durians, all from Thailand, with a wholesale value of more than $1.7 million, according to the Department of Agriculture. About 80 percent come frozen, said Nat Kuramarohit, general manager of DP Trading, a produce importer based in Los Angeles. His company brings in fresh durians, which he says are firmer and sweeter than the frozen kind, but cost much more since they must be flown in — at $3.50 to $4 a pound wholesale, and about $35 retail for a typical 7-pound fruit; a frozen one would cost closer to $10.

Songpol, 52, says his work is far from done. He is mapping out durian DNA, and hoping to pinpoint the malodorous gene one day. Meanwhile, he is trying to breed a durian without spikes.

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