durian bkk flickr
Photo: Flickr/David Baxendale

The Durian Fiasco: How a Story About Asian Fruits Sparked a Debate on Orientalism

A New York Times story celebrating Southeast Asia's fruity bounty (while trading in what many say are reductive stereotypes) has prompted an outpouring of criticism online.
June 29, 2020, 4:55am

It wasn’t a great week for fruit lovers in Southeast Asia.

First, durian made headlines around the world (again) after a story emerged of a German post office reportedly being evacuated because of the fruit’s renowned odor.

Then the New York Times published a piece on Thailand’s fruit culture by its Bangkok-based bureau chief, Hannah Beech, titled "Eating Thai Fruit Demands Serious Effort But Delivers Sublime Reward." The piece explores, in a florid style familiar to readers of "exotic" food writing, the pleasures, disappointments, and aggravations of regional staples such as rambutan, jackfruit, mangosteen, snake fruit, and of course, the King of Fruits, durian.

But unlike most Western media outlets’ semi-regular toe-dips into durian coverage (almost always reduced to the conclusion "hey, it smells!"), the Times’ article sparked a heated online conversation about Western coverage of Asian food, and it’s sometimes allegedly problematic tendency to traffic in colonial, orientalist tropes.

Describing the region’s bounty, Beech accurately notes that Southeast Asia’s "fruits are like no other."

"There is fruit encased in prickly armor that smells of a deep dank rot. There is fruit that emits a sticky sap when peeled and another that stains fingernails mauve for those craving its succulent flesh."

Over the course of the feature, in addition to forays into the market dynamics of Thailand’s fruit industry and its potential as a major exporter, Beech also offers her own thoughts on the fruits themselves. Dragon fruit, for instance, is "bland mush."

Mangosteens, meanwhile, to Beech "strike a Socratic equilibrium between sweet and sour," but are just as often "an exercise in disappointment" thanks to the difficulty of finding a good specimen. Jackfruit tastes like "overripe Juicy Fruit" brand chewing gum.

In a passage that drew particular ire, Beech notes that the striking-looking rambutan, while "yummy," also "bears more than a passing resemblance to a coronavirus."

But when it comes to the King of Fruits, Beech showed no mercy, referring to durian as “the most infamous one—which stinks of death,” she wrote.

Durian, in particular its odd, spiny appearance, and even odder smell, has been a perennial subject of uncritical fascination for Western media outlets. Indeed, a search of the New York Times website alone returns thousands of results for “durian,” including a piece from all the way back in 1961 titled “Fruit Dispute; The pros and cons on durian are as strong as its pervasive odor.”

Coverage, it would seem, hasn’t evolved much since—and Beech’s story appears to have been the straw that broke the internet’s back.

From Singapore and Malaysia to Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, Twitter users slammed the Times’ story as "poorly informed," "terrible," and even flat-out "racist," rallying to the defense of the region’s beloved fruits.

"No one insults a mangosteen. One worships it as the fruit of the gods!," tweeted the novelist Monique Truong. "Also, a rambutan looks like the coronavirus?... Why don't you just go ahead and call it the 'kung flu' of fruits?"

In a statement to VICE News, the New York Times defended their coverage, noting that Beech spent part of her childhood in Thailand, and has worked there for seven years, adding that the story was well-received by "many in Thailand, Southeast Asia and beyond."

"Hannah Beech has reported from the region since 1997. Her story is an ode to Thai fruit," said spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha. "It was praised by Thai media, saying it recognized the quality of fruit."

But many, however, saw the piece as emblematic of deeper problems with Western coverage of the region.

Amirul Ruslan, a prominent Malaysian media analyst on Twitter, took offense at the story’s "needless negativity." In a lengthy, strongly-worded thread, he accused the article of trading in "reductive stereotypes of Southeast Asian countries."

“It’s tone-deaf at a time when food writing is finally experiencing a moment to reflect on how harmful reductive, exoticizing, colonial media is.”

He also pointed out the “appalling” absence of local voices in Beech’s piece, particularly in a region that similar outlets have “almost always reductively described as being food-obsessed.”

While some netizens came out in support of Beech’s style of storytelling, most of those comments were lost in a torrent of criticism.

The award-winning writer and editor Osayi Endolyn offered an extensive breakdown of why Beech’s article “perpetuated white supremacy and colonialism.”

“An African American friend of mine eats most of these fruits on a daily basis and it was enraging for her to read,” she noted at one point.

“This isn’t about attacking the writer,” she added. “It’s about noticing how easily we accept racist rhetoric.”

Lindsay Gasik, from Oregon, is a tropical fruit aficionado who spent nearly a decade travelling Southeast Asia. After falling in love with durian, she was inspired to set up her own “fruit tourism agency” to educate westerners on Asian fruits. She spoke to VICE News about her love for local fruits and why she often finds Western takes like Beech’s to be problematic.

“Fruits in this part of the world are amazing, simply the best,” she said. “I was blessed coming to Asia and being able to witness the incredible kindness of people who recommended their favorite local fruits to me and even offered some so they could share their experiences. Because in many ways, sharing food makes it taste better.”

Gasik never heard of durian before trying it for the first time in the Philippines. “I went in without any expectations or listening to negative judgment so I didn’t feel afraid. A man did tell me that it tasted ‘magical’ and he was right.”

She found the Times article particularly frustrating in terms of Southeast Asian fruits were portrayed.

“If the aim of such a piece was to expose people from other countries to new and interesting fruits from Southeast Asia, then great. But it read like clickbait and writing about something as personal as food should never come at the expense of a community, especially one as strong as durian lovers who enjoy their fruit like how Europeans enjoy wine and cheese—and Western media outlets often miss this point and get too obsessed over its strong smell and alien appearance.”

Still, she adds, stereotypes can swing both ways. “I do know visitors to Southeast Asian also find it hard to shake off impressions of them by locals as well.”