Monday, January 30, 2017

David Norris writes

No Durian Allowed

I’m country, and I take pride in it. A naiveté of sorts, an innocence if you will, comes with growing up close to the earth and away from the hustle and bustle of the city. At the same time, often a thirst for adventure, a curiosity for what is out there in the big cities also comes with such a heritage. My great granddaddy Pop got me started on traveling when I was just a little boy. Our first trip took us on a Greyhound bus ride all the way down to Florida when I was still only in the second or third grade. And all these years later, I still have in my memory an image of a man wrestling an alligator and our taking a ride on a ferry boat. I can still see the water over the side of the railing. 

Traveling got in my blood early. Pop took me up to Chicago and to Baltimore on other trips. Then a few years after he died I started traveling on my own. I’ve driven across the country five times, and the last time I guess I just kept going. I’ve been in Asia since 1985, but I’m still country, as I found out on a recent trip to Bangkok. 

My friend Goong, whose nickname means “shrimp,” was determined to show me somewhere every day that I had never seen before and have me eat something every day that I had never eaten before, and she succeeded. 

We rode the "Sky Train," which is Bangkok's elevated mass transit system, a subway up in the air, down to Pantip, the infamous electronics market and Bootleg Central for movies and software and computers and all things electronic. A copy of Windows XP Professional that sells for $300 back home goes for $2.50 down there. An entire season of the Sopranos runs about $15. The place is always packed with both locals and farang. Farang is the Thai word for "foreigner." It comes from the early Thais’ first contact with Westerners, who were from France. The Thais had difficulty saying France; it came out farang.

Out on the street the vendors sell fruits and vegetables, and also there are many, many street-side restaurants. You walk right in among the tables where people are eating as you traverse the crowded, bustling street. One of the venues that caught my eye serves this big fish 12 to 14 inches long that has been heavily salted on the outside and had stuffed down its throat a long twisting wreath of lemon grass mixed with other aromatic herbs. You can watch as the cooks roast these fish over an open flame and the patrons peel off the skin before eating the fluffy white meat. The salt and lemon grass and herbs are said to be the secret of its wonderful flavor. 

The place is always packed with people laughing and chatting and drinking beer and eating to their hearts’ content. We had intended to have a late lunch there, but just as we sat down, a light rain began to fall. Most just ignored it while the restaurant’s workers brought out big umbrellas to put over them. We opted to jump back into the crowd and head for another part of town. The streets of Bangkok are filled with life’s energy. It’s noisy, it’s crowded, it’s constantly moving, it’s filled with smells, delightful and enchanting as well as foul and repellent. Aromas and odors both fill the air. You will even see an occasional elephant walking by amongst the crowded traffic flow of cars, taxis, truck-taxis, toot-toots and 100cc motorbikes.

A man and woman were selling durian on the street. He had a big shiny steel cleaver like the one a butcher uses to cut meat, and he was whacking away at this big ugly piece of fruit. While he hacked, she pulled little pieces off an already peeled one and munched on it with delight filling her eyes. People look happy when they’re eating something they really love. You can hear it in their voice when they talk about their favorite foods. Her big smile and that gleam of enjoyment in her eyes made this country boy curious. I had seen durian in the stores back in the States and again all over Southeast Asia. It’s a large fruit about the size of a football with spikes on it, very much like a pineapple on steroids. I’ve seen it all different colors, from green to golden to the color of dried dung in a field. I’ve seen it in a fairly consistent oval shape, and I’ve seen it twisted in strange ways. It’s well-known for its infamously terrible odor. In fact, the hotel at Chang Mai had a sign on the elevator that said "No Durian Allowed” in the hotel’s rooms. At the same time, other people have told me, “It is delicious and the smell disappears as you eat it.” 

Don’t believe it! 

I tried one little bite of it, standing there on the streets outside Pantip Market in downtown Bangkok on a slightly rainy afternoon in January 2006. And I thought it would be my last day on the streets of downtown Bangkok in this lifetime! It was horrible!! Horrible!! Horrible!! The texture, the smell, the taste!! Yuk! Yuk! Yuk! It’s been almost two months since that foul excrement passed between my lips and teeth and landed on the top of my tongue, and my face still scrunches up and my shoulders still shrug themselves up to my ears whenever I think of it. Never again! Not ever in this lifetime! No sir!! No ma’am!!! It looks like raw white beef liver and has the texture of congealed mucus with these stringy little threads running through it. Uuuuuuuggggggggggggh!

Then we were off to Shilom, another area popular with the tourists, a place I had heard about but never visited. The streets were once again packed with vendors and shopkeepers selling everything from CD's and DVD's to foot massages to clothing. We started to look for a new place to eat; it was dinner time by then. I saw a little alleyway with folks sitting and eating at small tables right on the sidewalk. That looked good enough to me and adventurous as well. And let me tell you, I needed a beer at this point to erase that foul aftertaste from my mouth. 

Goong said, “Let’s keep looking.”

If you have a Thai friend, realize that your friend will always order more food than the two of you can ever possibly eat. If there are only two of you, the order will feed four. If there are five of you, well, pull up some chairs and invite every neighboring table over to join you, and be sure to do it with a big smile on your face. The Thais are a friendly and open lot. Their country is called “The Land of Smiles.” When I walk down the streets, people often shout out, “Hello! Come join us! Have something to eat.” Now I understand why. They have more than they can eat! 

Goong asked me what I would like to have, and I said, “How about a little red chicken curry and some fried rice with that fresh crabmeat that I like so much. And a beer to take the edge off the spices.” By this time I had eaten a huge meal every day and had gone home every night feeling as full as a tick. She made a little frown and said nothing, just kept looking at the menu. Then the waitress came over, and they talked for about five minutes. The waitress walked away, and I asked, “Are we going to have fried rice and curry?” 

“Of course” 

My beer came along a short time later, a Singha lager. Then the waitress brought over a small plate of stir-fried green vegetables in a nice brown and slightly sweet oyster sauce. They were kind of like collard greens, only with stronger stems. I looked up at Goong and said, "This’ll get cold before the rice arrives.” But at that very moment they brought over a huge fish, just like the one we had seen on the streets, with its throat stuffed with lemon grass and herbs. “Huh?!” I exclaimed.

They put a container on the table that looked like a big clay flower pot with chunks of glowing charcoal piled inside. You could see the burning coals through little openings on its side. Then on top of it they placed a long tray filled with a curry sauce and the big fish, and let me emphasize once again, it was a big fish! They next carried out a plate of raw vegetables. Long green beans, raw cabbage, cauliflower, baby ears of corn, slices of young papaya, cucumber and green garden onions. In one of the separate small bowls, we had chopped-up chili peppers soaking in vinegar and in the other a fish sauce to add a little salt to our meal if we wanted. 

“You eat this with the fish. You put the rice on your plate and then some of the fish and then some of the vegetables, all on top of the rice. You eat it with your spoon; the fork is only for moving the food to your spoon.” 

“Where’s the rice?” 

And about that time, a huge plate of crab-fried rice arrived, accompanied by the chicken curry, with a big dab of coconut cream heaped in the middle.

Then the waitress brought over a freshly made fruit punch straight out of the blender, made from real fruit, and a bottle of mineral water. 

Our dinner lasted a little over two hours. 

The total cost, $18.75. 

And that included tip. 
Durian Vendors -- Liu Kang

1 comment:

  1. The durian is the fruit of 30 recognized tree species belonging to the genus Durio, at least nine of which produce edible fruit (over 300 named varieties grow in Thailand). Durio zibethinus is the only species commercially cultivated on a large scale and available outside southeast Asia, bestowed in the 18th century by Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, physician, and zoologist who formalized binomial nomenclature, the modern system of naming organisms: zibethinus refers to the Indian civet, Viverra zibetha, a small, lithe-bodied, mostly nocturnal mammal native to tropical Asia and Africa. ["Civet" is a name applied to over a dozen different mammal species; most of the species diversity is found in southeast Asia. The best-known civet species is the African civet, Civettictis civetta, the main source of the musky scent used in perfumery; "civet" may also refer to the distinctive musky scent produced by the animals. "Musang King" is one of the popular cultivars in Malaysia; musang is the Malay word for civet cat.] Durian is derived from the Malay "duri" (thorn) in reference to the fruit's numerous protuberances of the fruit. Regarded by many in southeast Asia as the "king of fruits," it is distinctive for its large size, strong odor, and formidable thorn-covered husk. Its shape ranges from oblong to round, its husk color from green to brown, and its flesh from pale yellow to red. The fruit can be as large as 30 cm (12 in) long and 15 cm (6 in) in diameter, and it typically weighs from 1-3 kg (2-7 lb). The flesh can be consumed at various stages of ripeness, and it is used to flavour a wide variety of savoury and sweet edibles in Southeast Asian cuisines. The seeds can also be eaten when cooked. Georg Eberhard Rumphius, a 17th-century German botanist employed by the Dutch East India Company in what is now eastern Indonesia, claimed that drinking alcohol after eating durian would cause indigestion and bad breath. In 1856 British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who independently developed the theory of natural selection in evolution that is credited to Charles Darwin, described its taste as a "rich custard highly flavoured with almonds ... but there are occasional wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes.... It produces no nausea or other bad effect, and the more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop. In fact, to eat Durians is a new sensation worth a voyage to the East to experience... as producing a food of the most exquisite flavour it is unsurpassed." Novelist Anthony Burgess writes that eating durian is "like eating sweet raspberry blancmange in the lavatory," while travel and food writer Richard Sterling says its odor "is best described as pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock." Other comparisons have been made with stale vomit, skunk spray, and used surgical swabs. Wallace cited another writer, who said "it seems at first to smell like rotten onions, but immediately after they have tasted it they prefer it to all other food. The natives give it honourable titles, exalt it, and make verses on it." Aphrodisiac qualities have been imputed to it; Indonesian say, "durian jatuh sarung naik" (the durian falls and the sarong comes up).


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