When the Durians Fall Down, the Sarongs Go Up

I get self-conscious every time I write about durian. You see, if I wrote about durian as often as I think about it, I’d have to rename this blog Durian Vagabond: Vagabonding in Pursuit of Durian.

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I can’t help it though. To me, durian is more than a fruit in the way that to others, wine is more than a drink. Durian has an unmatched depth of flavor, each cultivar completely unique, each fruit unique. Is that a hint of mint? An aftertaste of onions? The brightness of vinegar highlighting a creamy almond custard? And the texture. Oh lordy, the texture. Soft, melting, rich, luscious, sexy. Yes, sexy. There’s a saying in Malaysia and Indonesia: when the durians fall down the sarongs go up. I can’t actually attest to that, but I can say that eating durian gives me a natural kind of high. From the first bite, warmth spreads through my body as a smile takes over my face. Though I would prefer to attribute its happiness-giving-qualities to magic, apparently durian contains tryptophan, a natural antidepressant also found in chocolate.

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My friend here, Nutthavan, is often my partner in durian-related highjinks. She loves a perfectly soft and ripe durian as much as I and regales me with stories of the durian of her youth. She grew up in Trang, in southern Thailand, at a time when the ginormous and overly sweet Mon Thong (Golden Pillow) durian was not as prevalent as it is today. The durians then were smaller and less fleshy, but more intensely flavored. And they were allowed to ripen fully on the tree. You wouldn’t think to eat a durian until the tree had released it and it had fallen to the ground with a thud as if to say, “I’m ready. Come eat me! Enjoy!” Eating durian was (and still is) a social activity. Open a few durians and the smell will advertise their presence. Family and friends gather round, grinning with each taste as the magic (er, tryptophan) takes over.

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Soft durian and sweet sticky rice accompanied by a durian-infused coconut milk sauce

Durian is widely known to be a heating fruit and is often eaten with the mangosteen, a cooling fruit, to maintain balance. Nutthavan likes to tell me that when she eats durian she doesn’t need a blanket at night. I always chuckle and nod, but what I don’t tell her is that this is Thailand—I never need a blanket at night. After all, durian season follows on the still-hot heels of the hottest season, as if it is Nature’s apology for all the misery She put us through during those sticky, sweltering, sun-drenched days. And with the first luscious bite of durian, all is forgiven.


Street Food: Khanom Gui Chai

Recently, I was walking through the streets of Chanthaburi with my friend Jan. Jan was cycling from Bangkok to Cambodia, into Vietnam and Laos, then back to Bangkok, and he happened to pass through C-Buri on my day off, so I caught the songthaew into town to see him. It was lunchtime, the sun was blazing, we were hungry, and the “Muslim Food” restaurant I had banked on was closed. What were two veg*ns to do? If I had been on my own, I would have stuffed my face with a few naturally vegan Thai sweets, but in Jan’s presence I felt compelled to act civilized, to eat a savory lunch with, you know, vegetables and nutrients and shit.

The truth is, though sweet street snacks are widely available, it’s not always easy to find savory vegan food in Thailand. In fact, I can only think of a few options, and luckily we stumbled across one of them.

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I’ve searched high and low for the proper Thai name for these, and the closest I’ve found is Khanom Gui Chai. Gui chai mean chinese chives, so this name only really describes one of the three types of dumplings we stumbled upon that day. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what was in the other two dumplings except to say that one was a light green filling and the other yellow.

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While Thailand may not have an abundance of savory vegan street food, it does have a very easy way to identify vegan (as opposed to vegetarian) food. Kin Jae (or Gin Jae) is strict vegetarian, with no eggs or dairy. No strong flavors like garlic or onion or cilantro either, unfortunately, but I’m happy do without in exchange for knowing I’m not accidentally eating fish sauce or eggs or gelatin.

So when Jan and I saw a woman frying up batches of these dumplings on a street stall in a narrow alley, I pointed and asked, “Nii kin jae, na?” and she confirmed that they were indeed vegan. She was also selling some fresh spring rolls, but they were “mai jae”.

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She served us a few khanom gui chai hot from the wide flat griddle and gave us two accompanying dipping sauces—one clear and vinegary but flecked with spicy chilis, the other dark and sweet like molasses.

The skin, a translucent and thick rice flour dough, was pleasantly chewy and crispy from the heat of the griddle and the filling of chinese chives was verdant and only mildly pungent. Chinese chives are much milder than their Western counterparts, tasting something like a clove of cooked garlic mellowed out with a mess of spinach.

Here’s a simple recipe to try that seems pretty versatile. If you’re in Thailand, these can be a little hard to track down unless you happen to know where a street vendor sets up. The good news is, once you’ve located the vendor, she’s likely to show up selling the same food in the same place at the same time every day of the week.

Six of these little guys cost us 20 baht ($0.65).


Thai Fruits: Salak

There’s no delicate or ladylike way to say this. Salak look like dragon testicles. Though I’m not normally one to disparage any edible flora, I’d guess that they taste pretty similar too. That’s a roundabout way of saying they taste a bit musty, a bit, er, sweaty.
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That may sound like an admonishment, and I hate to admit to liking the taste of dragon testicles, but you must remember my obsession with durian, which, by Anthony Bourdain’s account, tastes like “french-kissing your dead grandmother”. So I’m not adverse to strange-tasting fruits and while I wouldn’t seek out the salak, I certainly haven’t given up on it.
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The scaly outside is sharp and prickly, but if you’re careful, you can peel the thin brittle scales away from the delicate flesh underneath. The salak isn’t likely to draw blood, but it just might give you a splinter or two.
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Once peeled, the fruit is firm, but yielding and a little juicy. There’s not much flesh though, as the seeds inside are large. Salak is perfumed and has a piercing smell. The flavor is pungent and sweet and sharp, with a long, lingering flavor.
I don’t know if I would buy it again. It’s a bit of a pain to peel, the edible portion of the fruit is small, and it tastes a bit (and I mean this in the least negative way) sweaty.


Counting 7-Elevens

“That makes seven,” I thought as the car rumbled by another white, red, orange, and green striped storefront. Less than a block away I saw another. “Eight!”

In about five minutes on the road near the Phutthamonthon suburb of Bangkok I had seen eight 7-Elevens, those ubiquitous convenience stores so popular in Thailand.

“Eight in only five minutes! That’s got to be some kind of record,” I thought gleefully. It was a small triumph, but given that we had been struggling through Bangkok traffic for nearly an hour, I was ready to delight in the latest record in my Thai-inspired car game, Counting 7-Elevens.

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As kids on long road trips with our family, my older brother, Josh, and I used to depend on car games to pass the otherwise interminable vastness of time which stretched before us. There was our parents’ least favorite game of This is My Side, a travel-version of Capture the Flag with no flag, no goal, no time restriction, and a playing field the size of our backseat. In This is My Side, Josh and I would draw a line down the middle of our Buick LeSabre’s spacious backseat, a line which was uncrossable in theory. (In practice, however, we delighted in tiptoeing our fingers into each other’s territory, taunting each other into swift and slapstick-y action.)

For Mom and Dad, a more acceptable use of our creative energy was the License Plate Game. In this game Josh and I scanned passing cars to find license plates from all fifty states, checking off each state as we did so. Once, in Tennessee, Josh spotted the abominable snowman of the License Plate Game—the elusive Hawaii plate—and we happily spent the next few minutes imagining scenarios which would land a Hawaiian car in the bible belt of the contiguous United States.

We played other car games, including one in which we read every billboard and sign we passed, searching for each letter of the alphabet in its proper order. Once we spotted a letter, that billboard was used up.

Though I’m probably too old now to play This is My Side, and though I have an iPod full of fascinating podcasts, I still enjoy playing car games. My mind revels in the obsessive joy of finding and counting and crossing items off lists. And so, on a recent trip to Bangkok, a trip which involved traversing across the city several times, driving from end to end during peak traffic, I developed my latest car game. I call it Counting 7-Elevens.

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It’s simple, absurdly so, and the title explains it all. Using a timer or clock you see how many 7-Elevens you pass in a given time limit. In the cornfields of Iowa, where I grew up, Counting 7-Elevens would be an insufferably boring game. But in Thailand, where t-shirts are emblazoned with 7-Eleven’s logo and every whistle-stop town boasts at least one striped awning, Counting 7-Elevens helps to break up the monotony of yet more Bangkok traffic.


Thai Fruits: Rose Apple

I remember buying a kilo of rose apples as I waited with my bicycle for a ferry to cross one of the numerous tributaries and rivers in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. I’ll be honest, the rose apple was my third choice, purchased after the jackfruit and mango both proved too expensive. At 5,000 Dong (*snicker*) (about $0.60) per kilo, it was hard to say no them though. I munched on a rose apple, appreciating its crisp and juicy texture, and I watched the family next to me slurp down cold ca phe sua da (iced Vietnamese coffee) as we all waited for the tiny ferry to come take us across. Frankly, I didn’t know where I was, which of the many rivers I was crossing, nor exactly where the ferry was heading, but it didn’t matter. I had Bowie, my bicycle, I had enough Dong (*snicker*) for a guesthouse, I was surrounded by a smiling family, and I had a bag of rose apples.

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Thus began my appreciation for the rose apple, an otherwise fairly neutral fruit. One thing it has going for it is convenience. It’s portable, there’s nothing to peel, and you can eat the entire thing. Yes, there are one or two tiny seeds in the center (see picture below), but they’re edible and barely noticeable.

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It looks like some kind of capsicum-apple mutant and that fairly accurately describes the flavor as well. It’s crisp and mildly sweet. A few I recently ate had the remarkable taste of a well-dressed salad—vegetal and slightly vinegary. Though I understand if that’s not what you’re looking for in a fruit, you’ll have to trust me that it was an entirely pleasant experience.

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It’s safe to say that the rose apple falls under the don’t-get-too-excited-if-you-see-it-in-your-local-ethnic-grocer category. It is pleasant and refreshing, but doesn’t taste as exotic as you’d hope.


Sneaking into Petra, or, Nothing is Free

I saw Petra for free, snuck in the back route on donkeyback swaddled and clothed like a Bedouin woman. I rode a donkey, a mule, and a camel that day—all for the first time. I drank more Bedouin tea than I can remember, met more people than I can remember, and watched my host free climb the monastery, the largest and tallest tomb face in the compound of Petra.

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Does it sound like I’m bragging? I suppose I am, just a little bit, but the truth is that I wish I had just paid like everyone else. For though I laughed on muleback up 800 steps to a view of Petra and heard Bedouin flute played live in the great tomb, I also realized that nothing is free and that my proclivity to trust people and to believe what they say is naive bordering on stupid.

It started with a very fucked up night involving,  if I boil the situation down to bare bones, a man in love with his younger paid male companion, who in turn had been hitting on me all evening and wanted to share my bed. It involved two Bedouin cousins who were hosting our unhappy triangle in their bug-riddled small flat and who offered me an oil massage and asked me to come to them, both of them, in the middle of the night. I couldn’t make this shit up if I tried.

The next morning (did I just skip over an eventful night? Yes. Yes, I did.) I tried to make it clear to the cousins that I wasn’t interested in their oft-repeated offer.

“I’m sleeping alone tonight,” I said, emphasizing my point by booking a room at a local guesthouse.

“I’m sleeping alone tonight,” I repeated later when they made it clear that they would both like to sleep with me that night. But, and here’s perhaps the crux of the problem, I smiled as I said it. As I so often do, I smiled while I said no. But then, I’m used to people doing me the courtesy of taking me at my word.

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Because of ensuing drama between the older man and his paid companion, a group expedition into Petra became, quite unexpectedly, an uncomfortable threesome consisting of me and the Bedouin cousins. They said they could get me, through a back route, into Petra on donkeyback, that they were happy to show me around, that it really was no trouble. So I said “Fuck it,” and left my friends to their arguing and drama and headed into the desert with the cousins.

The ground was littered with small rocks, with pebbles, with sand. If I had been walking, I would have needed to watch my footing carefully. But I was on donkeyback, and after imagining quite vividly what might happen to me if the donkey stumbled, I had a reassuring thought. People in this area had been using donkeys for, oh, let’s say thousands of years. If they trusted the donkey, surely I could too. So I relaxed and leaned back (figuratively and literally) and began to enjoy the view.

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The landscape was beautiful and desolate, with pink-tinged rock faces that hid any sign of habitation. But the cousins pointed out carvings and structures in the surrounding cliffs, and suddenly, like that moment when you finally squint just so and a 3-D picture snaps into place, all I could see around me were the too-regular outlines of man-made dwellings and the flourishes of decorative chiseling. Just as I began to enjoy the view and could see Petra approaching, the cousins decided it was time to take a break. We pulled blankets out of the saddlebags and arranged a spot in the shadow of a tomb carved in the cliff face. Then the cousins pulled a bottle of Sprite and a bottle of gin out as well. Oh good, I thought with a grimace, 2:00 p.m. does seem like the perfect time to begin drinking.

The drinks flowed copiously, though not into my cup. An hour later, after three-quarters of the gin bottle was empty, the younger cousin, Hamdu, began his seduction of me in earnest. He offered me another massage (which appears to be a universal allusion to sex) and when his older cousin, Saleh, left to pee, Hamdu tried to kiss me. He pulled me toward him despite my protestations and when I realized he had no intention of letting me go, I pushed against his chest with my arms extended and my elbows locked.

“I don’t want to kiss you. I told you I’m not interested. I tried to be clear,” I said softly, despite my anger.

“Why are you wasting my time? You’re flirting with me and now you say you don’t want it?” He was angry and made no attempt to be polite.

Saleh returned before I could reply and witnessed some of what transpired.

“Don’t worry about Hadmu,” he told me. “We’ll leave him here to drink while we go to Petra and I show you everything. And you can trust me; I never give something to a woman unless she wants it. I don’t need to force anything.”

“Okay,” I said because I did believe him. It was his cousin whom I felt uncomfortable around, but still, I added for good measure, “I’m sleeping alone tonight.”

So I got back on the donkey and Saleh and I left together for Petra. After five minutes, I could see the huge and sprawling compound before us. I tried to orient myself, as we had come in through a side route. Ahead of me was a small stadium of sorts, immediately to the left was a large tomb, and to my right, down a sharp slope, was a colonnaded street and hippodrome.

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Saleh ducked into the nearby tomb and spoke to a man he identified as another cousin. I was impatient to begin exploring, but felt compelled to wait, to stick to Saleh’s side, lest a ticket checker come around. While I waited, Saleh played his flute and sang in the resonant and vaulted area inside the tomb. At first I thought he was singing a traditional Bedouin song, but then I caught snippets of the words.

“Look at all the tourists,” he sang, his voice trilling. “I wish they would fuck off.” His was a wavering nasal voice and resonated eerily throughout the high-ceilinged tomb.

I was tired of waiting. I’d been waiting now for hours. “Yalla. Let’s go.”

“Yalla,” Saleh agreed.

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My tour of Petra began in earnest—a whirlwind of stone steps and impossibly large carved structures built an inconceivably long time ago. I met innumerable cousins, one of whom let me ride his camel, while another gave me sugary dark black tea. Soon we were at the monastery, one of the highest points in Petra, and I watched in awe as Saleh nimbly climbed up the structure without rope, without gear, without any equipment.

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I stood at the base of the monastery with dozens of other tourists, our necks all craned uncomfortably to watch Saleh scale the carved dome roof and jump from parapet to parapet hundreds of feet in the air.

Next we traversed, me still on donkeyback, to one of the highest points in Petra, a point from which I could see no other tourists, only the rocky peaks of gray and maroon hills. It was here that Saleh began to speak vaguely about the magic of Bedouin energy and about giving me Bedouin energy. And I, in my limitless naïveté, thought he was referring to some kind of reiki. When he stuck his tongue in my mouth, I realized that Bedouin energy was yet another allusion to sex.

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“I’m so stupid,” I said as Saleh and I sat meters apart. I had made it clear that I didn’t want his “energy” and, in fairness to him, once I physically pushed him away, he left me alone. He was sulking though and unhappy as we sat there, waiting for Petra to empty and the guards to clear out so we could sneak out the same way we had snuck in.

I did feel stupid at that moment, but more than that, I dearly felt my dependence on Saleh. I wanted to placate him. Unless I wanted to get caught by the Petra security guards, it seemed that I was dependant on him to get out, to get back to the town of Wadi Musa and to my hostel.

“I’m so stupid,” I repeated, realizing that I had turned a blind eye to my good sense. I had gotten caught up in my greed for adventure, in the lure of riding a donkey through the setting of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Saleh and I barely spoke as we waited for the sun to creep low and the tourists and guards to head for the exit. Minutes passed, then half an hour. I considered just walking out and paying the $80 ticket if I got caught, but I wondered if that would be the only repercussion. Could I be jailed for sneaking into Petra? It seemed unlikely, but did I really want to find out? Spending time in a foreign jail is high on the list of things that scare me.

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Finally we started moving, slowly, back to the Bedouin village we’d started from.Tired of walking, Saleh climbed on the donkey behind me. The donkey’s bouncing, jerking pace put Saleh and I into close contact. Too close; I could feel his erection pressed against me. I quickly climbed off, happy to stretch my legs and to walk the rest of the way. We stopped one last time to watch the orange sun slink behind rosy cliffs, but I couldn’t enjoy the beauty of the view. I wanted to be anywhere else; I wanted to be alone.

From the Bedouin village I made it back to Wadi Musa and back to my hostel, but the rush of relief I expected never came. My body was still tensed with stress and my mind wouldn’t clear. I played over my mistakes on a repeated, inarticulate loop in my mind. And I struggled with the ramifications of the day. It was tempting to crawl inside myself, to avoid talking to strangers, to never smile.

But strangers often approached me, often with true offers of hospitality. So how could I differentiate those genuine offers from the disguised solicitations for sex? I had tried honesty; that didn’t seem to work. Distressingly, my instinct for whom I could trust seemed to be failing me.

I had no answers then and I have no answers now. I am trying to temper my openness with reserve, with caution. But my delight in meeting people and my lust for adventure usually wins out. Maybe that’s for the best. After all, bad memories fade and all that remains is a good story—a story of sneaking into Petra on donkeyback swaddled like a Bedouin woman.


Thai Fruits: Rambutan

You can’t deny the appeal of the rambutan. It looks like some kind of unhatched alien egg. It tickles the imagination and promises an exotic flavor experience, which, frankly is a check the rambutan just can’t cash.

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The florescent-green-tipped spikes are soft and malleable, despite their velcro-like appearance. The skin easily peels away from the fruit inside, revealing firm, translucent white flesh which is sweet and succulent.

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But the rambutan is the least tasty of the four eyeball fruits (my own classification). The other, yummier eyeball fruits are longan, lychee, and grapes. The problem lies not in the rambutan’s flesh, which is juicy and purely sweet, but in the flesh’s proclivity to cling to the large woody seed inside. This makes it hard to get a clear bite of the sweet fruit without getting a piece of the seed’s bark as well. But it’s not just a texture issue. Though I’ve yet to meet anyone else who agrees with me, I find the bark of the seed tastes disturbingly like fish. Even if I ate fish, I’m pretty sure I’d never choose to pair it with rambutan.

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My students here in Thailand have recently let me in on a tip which converted them from rambutan haters to groupies. It’s simple and elegant, but I’ve yet to try it. Because I’m lazy and rambutan has burned me before. They suggest using a knife to peel away the flesh from the seed. Now they can’t get enough of the organic rambutan we grow right here in our own little orchard. Someday, when the supply of mangosteen, longkang, and dragonfruit dries up, I might just give rambutan another try.