Today Blue Origin today successfully launched the New Shepard space vehicle’s Mission 9. The spacecraft is carrying payloads from private companies, universities and space agencies- including the world’s smelliest fruit.
Durian fruit are produced by at least nine Durio species (there are 30 in total), and there are more than 300 named varieties in Thailand, 102 in Indonesia, and 100 in Malaysia. The only species traded on the international market is Durio zibethinus. Across Southeast Asia, durian fruit are banned from many enclosed locations (including public transport and hotels) because of their sickening and lasting fragrance. Food writer Richard Sterling described it as “pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock” but those who can get past that believe the durian to be the ‘king of fruits’, with an unsurpassable flavour.
Despite being a quintessential part of Thai life, the durian isn’t native to Thailand – it hails from Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Thailand is the world’s top durian exporter, however.
The durian is a tall, single-stemmed tree that grows in tropical regions. It can reach over 35 metres in height. It bears large, spiny fruits, each of which can reach 5 kg in weight. The fruit is divided inside, with several oblong seeds in each segment. The ‘fruit’ that is eaten is the fleshy arils enclosing the seeds, a creamy coloured flesh. It can make up nearly a third of the total weight.
People either love or hate durian. According to Food Plants of the World: “It is the most expensive fruit in Southeast Asia. The taste is a strange mixture of buttery custard mixed with bananas, caramel, vanilla and garlic.”
When ripe, the fruit can be eaten raw, and is usually served with sugar, fresh cream or coconut milk. Unripe fruits are boiled. Durian seeds are edible roasted or fried. The fruit does not keep well fresh, but can be dried, fermented, pickled, salted or frozen. It’s used in both sweet and savoury dishes in Thailand. Apparently, its flower petals and young shoots and leaves are also edible, and smoked from burned durian peel is used to flavour fish dishes.
The tree’s size and tropical requirements mean it is unlikely to ever feature on off-world farms, and it’s hard to imagine any nation allowing the consumption of durian in spacecraft, where the crew would be unable to escape the smell. And yet, such is its appeal in Thailand that the Thai space research agency has included it in a project to produce Thai food suitable for future space travel. For the experiment, they will be blasting baked durian into space on a rocket. It will only be up there for five minutes or so, and on its return to Earth they will be investigating whether there have been any changes to its texture and smell. The durian will be accompanied on their space flight by riceberry, the Thai purple rice that’s currently a trendy health food. If the experiment goes well, they may launch other Thai favourites into space, such as Pad Thai or mango sticky rice.
Humans aren’t the only animals that eat durian – ripe fruits also attract squirrels, monkeys and orangutan and wild boar. It’s easy enough for them to eat fruit that have fallen to the ground and are over-ripe, but most animals aren’t capable of breaking through the tough, spiny shell.
The durian probably evolved to have its seeds spread by one of the megafauna – the elephant, which can supposedly swallow the fruit whole and disperse the seeds over great distances. Given the falling populations of elephants, the durian is therefore at risk of becoming an anachronistic fruit (a fruit without its natural animal partner), just like the avocado.
The avocado was lucky to survive beyond the extinction of the American megafauna, and to catch the eye of humans later on. The avocado has already been into space, as it is sometimes included in the fresh supplies sent up for astronauts. The advantage it has over the durian, of course, is that the avocado doesn’t need a spacecraft all to itself 😉