It’s impossible not to marvel at the diverse tastes on offer in the many drinks and dishes made from what could be called Thailand’s top two fruit choices. It’s also hard to ignore the contrasting reactions on the faces of foreigners encountering them in various forms.
Most people have smiles on their faces when drinking beverages or eating foods that include coconut. After all, it’s a refreshing and healthy addition to any meal, and used in drinks, soups, desserts, even served fresh in most local restaurants. You will see a similar contented reactions to durian from most native Thai people, but foreigners often find the intense aroma and flavour in some strains of the fruit overwhelming. In fact, carrying durian and eating it is prohibited on some forms of public transport, and many Thai hotels ban consuming or storing the fruit on premises for the same reason.
Love them or hate them, below are some good reasons why durian and coconut come top of the healthy Thai food chain.
King of Fruits
One of the world’s largest fruit – durian – can grow up to a foot long and comes in a wide range of varieties, some with more fragrance (or “smell”), flavour and sweetness than others. I was initially put-off by the smell, but I’ve since come to appreciate the taste and healthy attributes of quality durian, and I urge visitors to do the same. Thailand is now a key durian producer, so you’ll see piles of it sold whole when in season, or as packaged pieces at stands and markets.
Durian is known as “The King of Fruits” in Southeast Asia, partly due to its huge size, and also its many healthful benefits. Being a natural sulphur food, it offers cleansing attributes, has key fats for raw dieters, and its high tryptophan content can relieve depression, stress, insomnia and anxiety. The fruit’s pulp varies from a ruddy to bright yellow colour, and it grows encased in a tough, spiky outer husk.
Koh Samui Durian
Since durian thrives in a soil of loose and moist nature, it is only grown in certain areas of Thailand, primarily in the south, where higher humidity supports its growth. The island of Koh Samui is among the best known locations for durian, which is grown all over the island. The moist ocean air is key and visitors will see lots of the fruit appearing in August and September, a few months after mainland trees bear fruit.
According to Samui Agricultural Department, in the past, some 850 families on the island grew monthong or “golden pillow” durian, a variety lower in odour with a dense, tender pulp that’s considered delicious to taste. Durian ban (“white”) is a smaller version, with seeds that are cooked and eaten locally. I usually suggest beginners try kan yao (“long stem”) durian for its milder flavour and lighter pungency.
Durian chani (“gibbon”) is another version of this gargantuan fruit. More resistant to infection from insects, it is very popular and grown quite profitably. Although durian is not native to Thailand (Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia are considered the fruit’s native homes), the country exports to Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and even Canada.
For visitors to Koh Samui, Ta’s Wild Durian and Rambutan Farm is a must stop on a fruit discovery tour. Meanwhile on the mainland, the town of Rayong actually hosts a World Durian Festival every May, which actually features durian, mangosteen and rambutan in all their forms. You can also find the King of Fruit growing on Koh Chang, where it’s sold at stands as whole fruit, as a juice drink and even as ice cream at restaurants. JJ Market Place in Bangkok sells huge quantities of durian, as do the Big-C and Tesco Lotus hypermarkets. Nearby Nonthaburi is considered the prime production area in Thailand.
Like most Thai islands, Koh Samui is framed with swaying coconut palms. As if to confirm the destination’s tropical qualifications, the trees are literally everywhere, with palm fronds blowing and clacking in the breeze on every beach.
Although rice is Thailand’s main food export, with seafood and many processed foods also produced in large quantities, coconuts remain an important element in the Thai economy and comprise a key part of Thai peoples’ diet. This is certainly more noticeable on the islands where coconut is eaten and used in many forms for health purposes as well as cultural reasons.
You can still see the effects of an island-wide beetle infestation that wiped out about 20% of Samui’s coconut production several years ago, as many trees stand with no crowns in once-infested areas. The culprit A non-indigenous South African beetle brought to the island by mistake. Fortunately, the island’s coconut trees have now largely recovered and the ubiquitous fruit is once again available in abundance.
Many of the coconuts harvested today in Thailand are still collected from the tree tops and loaded onto trucks by pig-tailed Macaques. The training, perfected by one Suratthani based family that has taught monkeys to harvest since 1957, continues to this day. Smart farmers use monkeys, as they are far faster than humans. A monkey harvests up to 1,000 nuts a day. A human using a looped stick can only do one-tenth that amount.
Interestingly, it is said that much of the shoreline land was given to the daughters of Samui families in the 1970s, due to the fact that salt water makes coconut trees incapable of growing fruit. That land is now the highest priced on the island, supporting many rich women who run or own Samui’s premier resorts and luxury beachfront properties.
Natives, residents and savvy visitors to Thailand often drink coconut milk as an alternative to water, adding extra goodness by crushing the flesh and mixing it with the juice inside the nut. Coconut also enhances sauces and flavours in many Thai curries and is used to create a whole host of Thai dishes such as the delicious Tom Kha Gai soup (Thai coconut chicken soup).
Thai women are well known for having healthy hair and lovely skin and many use the oil in their hair and as a moisturizer. Westerners have also picked up on this trend in recent years, which is why you see so many coconut based soaps and lotions on the shelves of pharmacies and the beauty sections in department stores. Taking things a step further, a friend of mine cured insomnia and skin inflammation by putting a small spoonful of 100% coconut oil into his morning coffee for just a few weeks.
Of course, to get the simplest, quite readily available form of healthy coconut juice in Thailand, you can simply order a “maprao” or young coconut at one of the many Thai restaurants or drink stands that sell the fruit. The top is cut off and a straw inserted for you then all you have to do is consume and feel instantly better.
Coconuts are so prolific in Thailand that you can actually incorporate them into your travel itinerary and explore their many tastes and uses. Here are a few coconut-fuelled activities to try out.
- Coconuts are used to make an incredible array of crafts and arts. Shops on Samui and other islands stock a range of raucous and revered designs, large and small.
- Tour companies on Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Koh Chang and other Thai islands offer four wheel-drive trips to working coconut plantations. There, you can see the harvesting process in action. The Macaque monkeys are often the featured stars of these industrious side-shows, of course.
- Try tasty coconut ice cream for a special taste, or seek out coconut shaved ice from street vendors. The simple snacks can turn a hot day into a cool treat.
- Try Koh Samui’s most famous sweet – garamea – a jelly-like Thai dessert made with coconut and sold by food vendors by the pier in the main port town. You can also try garamea at the slightly bawdy tourist sites known as Grandmother and Grandfather Rock.