Durian – the spiky fruit with a pungent odour that some abhor – is a luxury treat for most Cambodians and durian season sends many into a frenzy of feasting despite its steep price.
Mao Vutha is a durian vendor who grows the fruit himself on his private plantation in Kampot, thus ensuring that his durian fruits are always naturally grown and high quality.
As both a vendor and a grower, Vutha has taken a particular interest in durian and offers to share some of his own research on the fruit and what he’s learned through his experiences in the business.
Vutha says that he enjoys digging into the history of durian partly because doing research on various topics has always been one of his hobbies.
“Honestly, I am not an agricultural or technical expert on durian. This is just my way of doing things. I love to do historical research and background before I start any business,” he says.
Vutha says that according to the documents he‘s been reading, durian originated from the Borneo and Sumatra islands of Indonesia and Malaysia. Over time, the trees spread to places like India, Papua New Guinea and the other countries of Southeast Asia.
Unfortunately, there are not many documents from Cambodia or written in Khmer related to durian so he’s been reading sources in English, French and Thai in search of details.
Vutha says his personal conclusion is that the history of Cambodian durian could be divided into two volumes, one of which would be about Kampot durian and the other would cover durian grown near the Thai border.
The 41-year-old plantation owner tells The Post that “it is believed that the durian grown in Kampot province originated from the Javanese island of Sumatra and was imported by a group of Javanese refugees who settled in Kampot. The durians in Kampot are similar to the durians native to Indonesia [Durio zibethinus].
“According to historians documenting the war between the Javanese and the Dutch that lasted from 1825-1830, the Javanese burned all of the fruit-bearing plants on the island to deny the use of them to the Dutch.
“However, some Javanese fleeing from the fighting brought along crops like pepper and durian and others with them to the Asian mainland both for trade and for possible cultivation, with Cambodia being one of the countries they fled to,” Vutha says.
There are 30 known species of durian trees with nine of those known to produce edible fruits. However, there are many more cultivars than that.
Cultivars are plant varieties that have been produced in cultivation by selective breeding and the three main countries of origin by which durian cultivars are grouped are Indonesia (103 varieties), Malaysia (13 common varieties, but 192 registered) and Thailand (over 200 varieties). Each cultivar can produce fruit that has its own distinct flavour, odour and appearance.
“The types of durian they grow in provinces like Pailin, Battambang and Banteay Meanchey are mainly from Thailand and from Chanthaburi province in particular. The varieties that most growers near the Thai border plant are Monthong, Chanee and Kanyao,” Vutha says.
The Indonesian varieties that are traditional in Cambodia are the three Kampot varieties that Vutha chose to grow on his plantation – the Ov Khak, Sadong Kit and Dounta.
Vutha says that the Ov Khak is similar to Thailand’s durian Chanee. The fruit is oval to broad cylindrical, lobed and greyish brown. The bright yellow pulp is thick, fine textured, firm, creamy smooth, sweet and of excellent taste.
Sadong Kit has very sharp thorns and the meat is baby yellow and milky in colour with a mushy flesh, but the odour is a pleasant fragrance that adds to the delicious and sweet taste.
Duonta is similar to Thailand’s durian Kanyao. It has been grown in Cambodia for a very long time and has a small size and a round volleyball shape. The flesh is very sweet and incredibly creamy but even when overripe it doesn’t become too mushy.
However, Vutha says that in recent years there aren’t as many Cambodians who are growing the Indonesian-by-way-of-Kampot durians as there were in the past.
The focus has shifted to durian varieties from Thailand like Monthong and Musang King, which is also known as Mao Shan Wang over in Malaysia.
“It’s quite concerning that our traditional Kampot durian is being neglected in favour of growing other country’s varieties. At the same time it’s totally understandable for the durian farmers because they find out what their customers want and then fill that demand,” Vutha says.
Vutha says his Kampot durian is selling very well and he sometimes sells 100 or more of them in an hour.
In years past, Kampot durian was considered to be of higher quality than that of neighbouring countries and cheaper imports would sometimes be mislabelled and sold as coming from Kampot.
Vutha says many of his customers are friends or they have mutual friends and they all know him well, so his advertising has always been through word of mouth. They know that his durian is grown naturally and is consistently top quality with a wholesome flavour to it.
Vutha also owns the Salmon House restaurant and engages in charity work helping to distribute food and supplies to those in need.
“I used to never focus on my farm. I just hired others to do the farming. Somehow it was never my main business. Things changed when one day I went to see how the farming was actually being done.
“With my own eyes, I saw them use a chemical substance to make the fruit ripen after they cut it down. I felt pity for the customers and for myself also as a durian lover. Starting on that day, I decided to do the farming myself,” he says.
Vutha says that once his eyes were opened and he realised the potential dangers involved with the questionable use of chemicals in farming, he considered that he already owned a farm so why not just grow his own food and eat by the sweat of his own labour rather than having to worry about whether his food is safe to eat all the time.
These past few years of doing the farming himself and succeeding at growing the fruits naturally have allowed him to eat to his heart’s content without any concern about the lingering presence of chemicals sprayed on them.
Vutha has a guarantee that any customer who buys a durian from his farm that happens to be rotten can always exchange it for a new one.
“It’s planted naturally, so there is no doubt if it’s not 100 per cent good. I will always exchange them for my customers and – guess what – because of that I have a lot of loyal customers,” Vutha says.
Right now, Vutha has his durian priced at 28,000 riel ($7) per kilo. That isn’t the cheapest price in town, but according to Vutha it isn’t always the best idea to buy the cheapest fruit available.
“Be aware that the process of growing durians takes loads of energy and time before they can be harvested, so if they sell them to you at a very cheap price then you need to understand why,” Vutha says.
Vutha encourages all growers to avoid using unnecessary chemicals as short-cuts because many of them are far more harmful than they realise – to both the grower and the consumer.
“I suggest that all durian lovers try to gain more knowledge about how to choose a good and safe durian. There are many sources nowadays to get the information from. Just be more cautious and protect yourself,” Vutha warns.
For more information Mao Vutha can be contacted via his Facebook page: www.facebook.com/vuthavarman