Monday, 20 April 2015

Singaporean Love-Hate Relationship with Durian and the Psychology of Food

  City Icons of the World  
When a city loves a particular thing a lot, it would build an iconic structure to express that affinity. Sydney's love of sailing in their harbour results in the Sydney Opera House that resembles the sails of yachts.

Sydney Opera House Sydney Opera House


Anyone who has been to Thailand or familiar with Thai culture knows how close is the bond between the Thai and elephants. Thai believes the map of their country looks like the head of an elephant.

Map of Thailand
What do you think? Can you see it?

So, one would expect one day a Thai would erect a building in Thailand that looks like an elephant. That happened in Bangkok in 1997 when the "Elephant Tower" - as it's dubbed - was opened.

The Elephant Tower, Bangkok, Thailand
Credit:  "Elephant tower" by Jarcje - Own work. 
Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons 

And in China where table tennis could be considered a national sport, you can expect buildings that's shaped like a ping-pong paddle and ball would be erected.

Well, it had been planned in 2011 where a hotel in the shape of the ping-pong paddle would be build inside a planned Olympic Park in the city of Huainan. Although we don't know if this project is going ahead. The point is, only Chinese architect would suggest a building like that.

Ping-pong Hotel, Huainan, China
Credit: the Huainan Municipal Bureau of Sports

What about Singapore? What would its iconic building look like? In other words, what preoccupies their mind? Sydney has yachting, Thai has their elephant, Chinese has table tennis, and what does Singapore obsess over? Well, what about Durian?

Durian, King of Fruits
Durians - King of Fruits

  Seeing Things  
Sydney has Sydney Opera House, and Singapore has Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay to honour the King of Fruits. One might argue that it may not be the intention of the architect to design the performance venue to be something that resembles a durian. Maybe it's the architect's intention. Maybe not. That's besides the point. What is important is that the citizen of Singapore sees it that way and calls it that.

In fact, if the architect has no intention of designing anything that resembles a durian, then it provides a strong case for the Singaporean love of durian because they see durian when it's not supposed to.

Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay, Singapore
Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay. Better known to the locals as "The Durians"

I had seen the map of Thailand more than a few times before, but the head of an elephant never jumped out at me until a Thai friend pointed it out. For Thai people, seeing an elephant in the map of Thailand, in the cloud, in a burnt toast, is easy. A Catholic who fills his/her mind with Virgin Mary would see her everywhere including a fence post in Coogee Beach in Sydney, Australia in 2003.

Coogee Beach fence post, Virgin Mary apparition
If you can see only fence post, and not Virgin Mary, you're probably not very 
familiar with the image of Virgin Mary or think about her a great deal

Similar vision of Virgin Mary was also seen in a knot of a tree trunk in New Jersey, USA in 2012.

Our brains trick us regularly (with optical illusions, perceptual distortion, false memories, etc). We should be on our toes all the times. Never mind self-denial or self-deception.

To put it even simpler, the image is inside our brains, not outside it. If you put it there. it's there. If you haven't, it's not there.

Just as those who had never seen, or have seen but not familiar with Virgin Mary wouldn't have seen anything supernatural, those who had never seen, or have seen but not familiar with the King of Fruit would likely to see the Esplanade for what it's, not durian. For a foreigner who never sees a durian, how can the Esplanade look like a durian? Some sees it as the eyes of a fly. Those who see that maybe people who're interested in biology, especially insects. Or somebody who had nightmare after watching The Fly (1986) the movie.


Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay, Singapore
View of  "The Durians" across the river

Does this building look like 2 durians or a pair of compound eyes of a fly to you? Are you a biologist or a durian lover? There's little doubt which of the category where majority of Singaporean fall into.

I guess the point is, you see what your mind seeks out the most, and that's what a Rorchach test tries to do. The test is just a inkblot with nonsensical random pattern. You tend to see pattern that occupies your mind. Through this test, psychologists try to read your mind by your reading of the random pattern. So if you show a Rorchach inkblot to Thai, they see elephants. Likewise, Singaporean will see durian. Of course, I'm kidding. Kind of. I think you get my drift.


  Durian, Durian Everywhere  
The Singaporean loves durian favour as much as Japanese loves their matcha (finely milled green tea powder). Japanese put matcha in every imaginable types of food from cake, ice-cream, candies to cappuccino (which I tried because I'm very adventurous and I like green tea. But it wasn't my cup of tea or coffee). I'm not a Japanese, and so I didn't grow up with Japanese palate who would find matcha naturally palatable.

Matcha cappuccino
Matcha cappuccino.

You will find quite a number of shops in Singapore specialising in food that contains durian.

Coffee shop with durian cake and desserts
Coffee shops specialising many durian flavoured cakes and desserts in Jurong Point mall

The coffee shop durian mascot
The coffee shop durian mascot

If eating durian isn't enough, why not go on a overseas durian tour? In America, the King refers to Elvis Plesley. In Singapore (actually Malayan Peninsula), durian is the king.

"A Date with the King" tour.
(click to enlarge)

If durian is such a big thing in Singapore, it makes sense for the visitors to buy it as a souvenir because in most countries of the world, such a shop would be as rare as hen's teeth.

Durian specialty shop at T2 of Changi Airport.
Durian specialty shop at T2 of Changi Airport.
Buy some unique Singapore product before leaving the country.


  Public Space Enemy Number One  
This is the love part, but where's the hate part? In most public venues, such as public transports, hotels, etc, durians are banned. This is because while it tastes like heaven, it smells like hell. The King of Fruit is both the Beauty and the Beast. It's beautiful inside, but the outside is a shell with beastly hard thorns that could really peel off your skin if you accidentally rubbing your skin against it. So it wasn't only the powerful smell that they're banned in public transport.

Durians on rack
Durian outer hard thorny shells on a rack

These days, there're fewer and fewer places selling durian with the thorny shells. My Malaysian friend used to show me how to open a durian with a spoon. Expect bloody fingers before succeeding opening one. It's harder to open than Ali Baba's cave. That's why they're usually sold without the shells, these days.

Durian flesh that were removed from its shells
Durian flesh that were removed from its shells

Durian flesh in polystyrene wrapping
Durian flesh in polystyrene wrapping for freshness and more importantly to trap 
its smell from leaking. Yes, the look can also be off-putting as well.


In Singapore MRT stations, you will often see this sign.

Warning sign in MRT station, Singapore
Warning sign in MRT station

While there's a "no drinking and eating" sign, there's also a "no durians" sign. Since durian is a food, the "no drinking and eating" sign implies no durians. I guess the King of Fruits deserves a separate warning, right? Okay, the warning suggests that no durians are allowed even if they're not being eaten. Interestingly though, there's no fine indicated. I guess it isn't illegal, but it's not recommended.

I guess if you bring a durian onto a MRT train, passengers will look at you like you're a farter (some argue it smells like fart, or worse than that). So the dirty looks you get from others should be an enough penalty in itself. So maybe below the "no durians" warning, there should be the words "Fine Dirty Look$" is printed.

This no durian sign is found on a bus, Singapore
This "No Durian" sign is found on a bus. You will find it on all buses.

And you can expect most hotels in Singapore would carry "No Durian" signs alongside with other signs.

Overall, there's a lot more love for durian than hate (and that's too strong a word).


  Taste is in the Mouth of the Connoisseur  
The aroma of durian is a bit like stinky tofu that's favourite for many Chinese. The stinkier it smells, the better it tastes. I guess the French will never be outdone by the Chinese when it comes to food. They have their smelly cheeses to boast. Just like French Pont l'Eveque, the more stinky it smells, the better it tastes. So the French cheese connoisseurs will tell you.


Pont L'Éveque cheese


While I don't particular like Pont l'Eveque, I regularly enjoy Camembert, which is also considered quite smelly.

Camembert cheese
Camembert - my fave French cheese

Fortunately for the SE Asian, durians are readily available and quite affordable, unlike the French smelly cheeses. having said that, because of their love of durians, some of them are actually quite comparable in prices with the expensive smelly French cheeses.


 Food Brainwashing 
Since I grew up in Vietnam, naturally I liked durian. If I didn't, I wouldn't pay the price of painful bloody fingers to learn the art of prying open a durian. This was in the 1980s in Malaysia where durian were sold with the shells.

I remembered there was a stall at the side of KL street. It had about a dozen or so durian on its rack. Jerry, my Malay friend, said I needed to buy many to master the art of opening its shells. So we decided to buy everything in the whole stall. The 6 of us managed to finish all 12 durians. We had our fill for the following 10 years.

Having lived in Sydney for decades, I suddenly have an aversion to durian (i should say "gradually", not "suddenly"). Dunno why. Is it the cold weather (relative to SE Asia) that makes my nose unbearable to the smell of durian? Or simply a natural change of taste? Or being influenced by all the negative reactions from people who aren't unaccustomed to the scent of durian? I think is the last one. Because I heard people commenting repetitively that durian is terribly smelly, I have developed an aversion for something that I once loved.  In other words, I have been "brainwashed" by the league of anti-durian Australian public over an extended period (of course, there's no such an official body exist. It's all in my head). "Brainwash" is probably too strong, it's more like another word for mental conditioning. I'm nothing but a Pavlov's Dog; just like everyone else. In a sense, this is the opposite of Pavlova phenomenon, that is, instead of making me drooling with food, it also works in reverse.

It's interesting how much psychology is involved in food.

Maybe I need to aquaint with it once again. If I can eventually acclimatise to Singapore weather, and more importantly surrounded by positive durian reinforcement, surely I can fall in love with durian again?



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