February 12, 2013
A crisp, clear stream flows out of Cajas National Park on a 20-mile circuitous route down to the town of Cuenca—but few fish live in these wild waters. Yet the Quinuas River Valley it forms is a hot destination for sport fishermen. They come by the hundreds each weekend, mostly from Cuenca, seeking the most popular game fish in the world: the rainbow trout.
“What kind of trout live in here?” I ask a young man who serves me coffee at Cabana del Pescador, the campground where I have stayed the night. I am only curious how locals refer to the species Oncorhynchus mykiss, which is native to North American and Siberian streams that enter the Pacific but has been introduced to virtually all suitable habitat on earth. In Ecuador, the species first arrived in the 1960s.
“Normal trout,” he says.
I aim to catch a few fish today and have them for dinner, but I move on, up the road, looking for a happier place to fish. The pond here is muddy, surrounded by concrete and a chain-link fence. Trouble is, I won’t find much better. This valley, though populated by a few wild trout in the streams and lakes of Cajas National Park, is a busy center of aquaculture. Trout farming is generally considered a clean and sustainable industry, though it isn’t always pretty. For a stretch of seven or eight miles downstream of the park, nearly every roadside farm has a handful of concrete-banked pools on the premises, fed by stream water and swarming with trout about 12 inches long.
Up the road, after passing a half dozen possible fishing sites, I pull in to one called Reina del Cisne, at kilometer 21. It is a restaurant and sport fishing “club,” as the sign tells visitors. I have coffee—Nescafé, as always—inside. When I am finished, I ask if there is an opportunity to fish here, and the teenage waiter beckons me to follow. “It’s 50 cents to rent a pole,” he says. “Then, we weigh the trout, and you pay $2.25 per pound.” The biggest fish in the ponds out back are more than ten pounds, he tells me.
He pulls one rod from a heap of several dozen—a broomstick-like pole with a stout line tied to the end and a silver barbed hook at the tip. He quickly mixes up a bucket of bread dough to use as bait, drops a hunk into a shopping-style woven basket and hands me my tackle.
“What kind of trout are these?” I ask, still fishing for local lingo.
“Salmon trout. They have red meat,” he says. He adds, “Good luck,” and returns to the restaurant.
For an angler who has fished in the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada and Alaska and New Zealand, this is a sad comparison, and I feel a strange desire to either cry or laugh hysterically. This would make a perfect opportunity for kids, but I know what real fishing, in real waters, is. Here, I have three ponds to choose from—two of them rectangular, concrete basins, the other a muddy, oval-shaped pool 30 feet across with grassy banks. I flick a piece of dough into this most natural-appearing of the options. Several trout dart from the murk as the white ball vanishes in an instant. I bait my hook and fling it into the middle of the pond, slightly embarrassed that I am participating in what locals advertise as pesca deportiva—or “sport fishing.” A similar flurry of fish attack and strip the hook. I re-bait and try again and this time hook instantly into a feisty rainbow. I drag it in and onto the bank, whack it cold with a stick and drop it in my basket. One down, and in another five minutes I have a second fish. I could take more but, frankly, this isn’t fun or engaging. A year ago exactly I was cycling around New Zealand, casting flies at wild trout six times this size and immeasurably more thrilling to catch—wary, elusive, picky and beautiful. The challenge of enticing one to strike made success an accomplishment. Best of all was the experience of being there, fish or none, standing in crystal clear waters surrounded by green meadows and the tall peaks of the Southern Alps. Indeed, fishing is largely about interacting with the environment, and if one catches no trout on an expedition into the mountains, something else is still gained.
But no matter how big a fish one may pull from a concrete-lined pond, using dough balls for bait, the experience feels as hollow as shopping in a supermarket. While I’m here, I hope I might tangle with an eight-pounder, but no such beast shows itself. I wonder if perhaps they tell all guests that giant trout live in these ponds to encourage business. But back inside the restaurant, my hosts show me the de-boned meat of a 14-pounder caught the day before. The meat is thick and heavy and a delicious-looking salmon red. I ask what the trout eat. “Natural food,” owner Maria Herrera tells me.
Down the road, at kilometer 18, I visit a government-run fish hatchery. I roll down the dirt drive, across the stream on a wooden bridge and up a short rise to the facility. I introduce myself to two men in yellow slickers, ankle deep in a muddy concrete basin full of thrashing foot-long trout. The station director, Lenin Moreno, tells me that more than 8,000 adult fish live here. He and his colleague, Ricardo Mercado, are currently trying to get an exact head count in a tank swarming with, they guess, about 300 fish. They take a break and show me to the laboratoria—the hatchery. In the trays and tanks of this covered, concrete-walled facility, 1.3 million juveniles are produced each year and sold to aquaculture operations in four provinces, Moreno tells me.
Outside, they show me a rectangular basin teeming with huge rainbows, green-backed, red-sided beauties that remind me of the two-foot-long giants of New Zealand. Visitors may come here to buy these trout, Moreno tells me. The fish go for $1.50 per pound.
I ask if the meat is red like salmon. “No—it’s white,” Moreno tells me. “But at the fish farms they feed the trout pigment.”
This doesn’t surprise me. The rainbow trout I grew up on were generally white-fleshed fish. Only occasionally on family camping trips as we cleaned our catch would we discover with excitement that the trout had natural pink meat, which tends to be richer and fattier than paler flesh. But in Ecuador’s many fish markets, I have not yet seen a trout fillet that wasn’t colored like salmon, and I’ve suspected all along that this attractive color (which I’ll admit has drawn my wallet from my pocket more than once) was artificially induced. I recall seeing the fillet of a trout caught in New Zealand just outside the outflow of a Chinook salmon farm that was clearly affected by such pigment—probably either synthetic astaxanthin or canthaxanthin, both used in most commercial salmon farming operations (and the latter of which may cause retinal damage). The trout had presumably been eating pellet feed that escaped from the salmon pens, and the meat was partially colored, patchy red and white like a tie-dyed shirt. Yuck.
I poached my farm-caught trout in cheap Chilean Sauvignon Blanc at my hostel in Cuenca, just off the main street of Calle Larga. The meal was fine and exactly what I had been aiming for when I plunked that ball of dough into the pond at Reina del Cisne. But the fish didn’t quite taste up to par. Because although pink-fleshed trout are a sure catch in the mountain fishing ponds of Ecuador, something else, less easy to describe, native to places like Montana and British Columbia, may evade you with every fish landed.
December 20, 2012
Tomorrow, a person standing anywhere along the Tropic of Capricorn can look up when the clock strikes noon and observe that the Sun is hovering directly overhead. That means easy sunburns and the start of summer to our friends in Sydney, Santiago, Cape Town and Auckland, for December 21 is the southern summer solstice.
But north of the Equator, we’re about to face-off with the shortest and darkest day of the year—our winter solstice. Where I live, in San Francisco, at about 37 degrees north latitude, the Sun will hit its meager noontime zenith at just 30 degrees above the southern horizon. And farther north, in Glasgow, at 56 degrees latitude, the situation is grimmer; the Sun will scrape out seven hours of daylight while peaking at noon only 11 degrees above the horizon. And in Fairbanks, at 65 degrees north latitude, the outlook for the solstice is truly bleak—for the Sun will barely make an appearance at all, rising to no higher than two degrees above the southern horizon and providing less than four hours of dusky daylight before dipping again behind the Earth.
For ancient people, this dark time of year, of shortening days and a sinking sun, was a gloomy one, posing the greatest threat of freezing or famine—especially in high-latitude locations. But the solstice, though the shortest, darkest day of all, also marked the turnaround toward spring and summer. Thus, December 21 and December 22 (the exact solstice date varies year by year) were days to rejoice. Many people around the world—especially, it seems, in Egypt and Europe—built temples and monuments in recognition of the winter solstice. They aligned these structures to face, frame or otherwise “welcome” the rising Sun as it emerged from the horizon, and today viewers may still see the beautiful visual effects these ancient architects created using Sun and stone. Following are several places to see the solstice in action.
England, Glastonbury Tor: At 51 degrees north latitude, Glastonbury Tor is a man-made mound in southern England that historians believe was built to celebrate the Sun and the path it takes through the sky. On the winter solstice, a person standing on the nearby Windmill Hill can watch as the rising Sun appears to roll along the slope of the mound from base to top, where the ruins of St. Michael’s Church still stand.
Mexico, Chichen Itza: Three months ago, I discussed the importance of this ancient Mayan site as it relates to the equinoxes—on which two days a shadow, cast down the stairway of the Kukulcán pyramid in the late afternoon, creates the spectacular image of an undulating serpent. On the winter solstice, the Sun itself is the star of the occasion, rising at dawn (it always does, doesn’t it?) and lifting upward along the edge of the pyramid. To a person facing the western side of the monument, the rising Sun appears to roll up the pyramid’s edge before lifting off into the tropical deep-winter sky.
Egypt, Karnak Temple: On December 21, viewers inside the Karnak Temple can see the Sun rise dramatically in the entryway, between the high walls of the ancient monument. For a few moments, the Sun’s rays gleam through the pillars and chambers—including the Sanctuary of Amun—before the event passes, and morning commences on this shortest day of the year. Arnak is just one of many sites like it in Egypt. A survey of 650 Egyptian temples, conducted by scientist Juan Belmonte of the Canaries Astrophysical Institute, has led to the conclusion that most of the sites were built in recognition of celestial events—especially sunrise on the equinoxes and solstices.
England, Stonehenge: The makers of England’s most famous rockpile certainly had something special in mind when they arranged the giant slabs as they did, but the site remains a mystery. Some people today believe the winter solstice sunset inspired the arrangement of the stones, but overall, evidence is spotty that the huge slabs of Stonehenge are aligned to celestial events. Nonetheless, Stonehenge fanatics want in on the party. Last winter, 5,000 people visited Stonehenge on the solstice, and many are expected tomorrow—though officials have voiced concern over the impending crowds. And as if crashing the winter solstice party wasn’t enough, pagans and partiers from miles around convene at Stonehenge for the summer solstice, too. In 2011, 18,000 of them hooted and hollered as the Sun rose just before 5 a.m., and 14,000 returned for the same occasion in 2012. This website concedes that the builders of Stonehenge did not likely have any summer solstice symbolism in mind.
New Zealand, Aotearoa Stonehenge: New Zealand is a modern austral society with ancient roots in the boreal world, and so what the Kiwis may lack in paleoarchitecture they may simply build anew out of wood, wire and concrete. So was born Aotearoa Stonehenge near Wellington, a modern interpretation of the original Stonehenge. Designed specifically to accommodate the site’s latitude and longitude, the circular arrangement includes 24 pillars that create windows through which visitors may watch the appearance of important stars and constellations of the southern sky as they rise from the horizon. Additionally, a 16-foot-tall obelisk points toward the celestial south pole. The structure was built by volunteers with the Phoenix Astronomical Society, who toiled for 11,000 hours over 18 months to complete the job. The henge was finished in 2005 and already has become a noted site for seeing the sunrise on the austral summer solstice.
The end of the world? The solstice of 2012 will be a particularly exciting one since the day also happens to be the scheduled end of the world, according to many spiritualists—especially those fixated on interpretations of the Mayan calendar. But scientists with NASA have publicly countered, announcing that there is no evidence of impending doom. The United States Geological Survey also concluded in a recent blog article that the world will go on after tomorrow’s solstice. Phew!
December 6, 2012
The start of the northern meteorological winter on December 1 will bring with it short days of darkness, blistering cold and frigid blizzards. For many people, this is the dreariest time of the year. But for a small niche of water-happy athletes, winter is a time to play, as ferocious storms send rippling rings of energy outward through the ocean. By the time they reach distant shores, these swells have matured into clean, polished waves that barrel in with a cold and ceaseless military rhythm; they touch bottom, slow, build and, finally, collapse in spectacular curls and thundering white water. These are the things of dreams for surfers, many of whom travel the planet, pursuing giant breakers. And surfers aren’t the only ones with their eyes on the water—for surfing has become a popular spectator sport. At many famed breaks, bluffs on the shore provide fans with thrilling views of the action. The waves alone are awesome—so powerful they may seem to shake the earth. But when a tiny human figure on a board as flimsy as a matchstick appears on the face of that incoming giant, zigzagging forward as the wave curls overhead and threatens to crush him, spines tingle, hands come together in prayer, and jaws drop. Whether you like the water or not, big-wave surfing is one of the most thrilling shows on the planet.
The birth of big-wave surfing was an incremental process that began in the 1930s and ’40s in Hawaii, especially along the north-facing shores of the islands. Here, 15-foot waves were once considered giants, and anything much bigger just eye candy. But wave at a time, surfers stoked up their courage and ambition. They surfed on bigger days, used lighter and lighter boards that allowed swifter paddling and hunted for breaks that consistently produced monsters. One by one, big-wave spots were cataloged, named and ranked, and wave at a time, records were set. In November 1957, big-wave pioneer Greg Noll rode an estimated 25-footer in Waimea Bay, Oahu. In 1969, Noll surfed what was probably a 30-plus-footer, but no verified photos exist of the wave, and thus no means of determining its height. Fast-forwarding a few decades, Mike Parsons caught a 66-foot breaker in 2001 at Cortes Bank, 115 miles off San Diego, where a seamount rises to within three feet of the surface. In 2008, Parsons was back at the same place and caught a 77-footer. But Garrett McNamara outdid Parsons and set the current record in November 2011, when he rode a 78-foot wave off the coast of Portugal, at the town of Nazare.
But these later records may not have been possible without the assistance of jet skis, which have become a common and controversial element in the pursuit of giant waves. The vehicles first began appearing in the surf during big-wave events in the early 1990s, and for all their noise and stench, their appeal was undeniable: Jet skis made it possible to access waves 40 feet and bigger, and whose scale had previously been too grand for most unassisted surfers to reach by paddling. Though tow-in surfing has given a boost to the record books, it has also heightened the danger of surfing, and many surfers have died in big waves they might never have attempted without jet-ski assistance. Not surprisingly, many surfers have rejected tow-in surfing as an affront to the purity of their relationship with waves—and they still manage to catch monsters. In March 2011, Shane Dorian rode a 57-foot breaker at the famed Jaws break in Maui, unassisted by a belching two-stroke engine. But many big-wave riders fully endorse tow-in surfing as a natural evolution of the sport. Surfing supertstar Laird Hamilton has even blown off purists who continue to paddle after big waves without jet skis as “moving backward.” Anyway, in a sport that relies heavily on satellite imagery, Internet swell forecasts and red-eye flights to Honolulu, are we really complaining about a little high-tech assistance?
For those wishing merely to watch big waves and the competitors that gather to ride them, all that is needed is a picnic blanket and binoculars—and perhaps some help from this swell forecast website. Following are some superb sites to watch surfers catch the biggest breakers in the world this winter.
Waimea Bay, North Shore of Oahu. Big-wave surfing was born here, largely fueled by the fearless vision of Greg Noll in the 1950s. The definition of “big” for extreme surfers has grown since the early days, yet Waimea still holds its own. Fifty-foot waves can occur here—events that chase all but the best wave riders from the water. When conditions allow, elite surfers participate in the recurring Quicksilver Eddie Aikau Invitational. Spectators teem on the shore during big-swell periods, and while surfers may fight for their ride, you may have to fight for your view. Get there early.
Jaws, North Shore of Maui. Also known as Peahi, Jaws produces some of the most feared and attractive waves on earth. The break—where 50-footers and bigger appear almost every year—is almost strictly a tow-in site, but rebel paddle-by-hand surfers do business here, too. Twenty-one pros have been invited to convene at Jaws this winter for a paddle-in competition sometime between December 7 and March 15. Spectators are afforded a great view of the action on a high nearby bluff. But go early, as hundreds will be in line for the best viewing points. Also, bring binoculars, as the breakers crash almost a mile offshore.
Mavericks, Half Moon Bay, California. Mavericks gained its reputation in the 1980s and ’90s, during the revival of big-wave surfing, which lost some popularity in the 1970s. Named for a German Shepherd named Maverick who took a surgy swim here in 1961, the site (which gained an “s” but never an official apostrophe) generates some of the biggest surfable waves in the world. Today, surfing competitions, like the Mavericks Big Wave Contest and the Mavericks Invitational, are held each year. The waves of Mavericks crash on a vicious reef, making them predictable (sandy bottoms will shift and change the wave form) but nonetheless hazardous. One of the best surfers of his time, Mark Foo died here in 1994 when his ankle leash is believed to have snagged on the bottom. Later, the waves claimed the life of Hawaiian surfing star Sion Milosky. A high bluff above the beach offers a view of the action. As at Jaws, bring binoculars.
Ghost Trees, Monterey Peninsula, California. This break hits peak form under the same swell conditions that get things roaring at Mavericks, just a three-hour drive north. Ghost Trees is a relatively new attraction for big-wave riders. Veteran surfer Don Curry says he first saw it surfed in 1974. Decades would pass before it became famous, and before it killed pro surfer (and a pioneer of nearby Mavericks) Peter Davi in 2007. For surfing spectators, there are few places quite like Ghost Trees. The waves, which can hit 50 feet and more, break just a football field’s length from shore.
Mullaghmore Head, Ireland. Far from the classic Pacific shores of big-wave legend and history, Mullaghmore Head comes alive during winter storms in the North Atlantic. The location produces waves big enough that surfing here has become primarily a jet ski-assisted game. In fact, the event period for the Billabong Tow-In Session at Mullaghmore began on November 1 and will run through February 2013. Just how big is Mullaghmore Head? On March 8, 2012, the waves here reached 50 feet, as determined by satellite measurements. A grassy headland provides an elevated platform from which to see the show. Bundle up if you go, and expect cold, blustery conditions.
Other big wave breaks:
Teahupoo, Tahiti. This coveted break blooms with big swells from the Southern Ocean—usually during the southern winter. Teahupoo is famed for its classic tube breakers.
Shipsterns Bluff, Tasmania. Watch for this point’s giants to break from June through September.
Punta de Lobos, Chile. Channeling the energy of the Southern Ocean into huge but glassy curlers, Punta de Lobos breaks at its best in March and April.
Todos Santos Island, Baja California, Mexico. Todos Santos Island features several well-known breaks, but “Killers” is the biggest and baddest. The surf usually peaks in the northern winter.
There is another sort of wave that thrills tourists and spectators: the tidal bore. These moon-induced phenomena occur with regularity at particular locations around the world. The most spectacular to see include the tidal bores of Hangzhou Bay, China, and Araguari, Brazil—each of which has become a popular surfing event.
November 20, 2012
Thanksgiving dinner may be the supreme all-American meal, and it’s surely one of the most satisfying feasts that ever has come across a table. It’s starchy, greasy and meaty; it’s both savory and sweet; it’s massive—and usually a sure recipe for leftovers. One could argue that a table set for Thanksgiving lacks in nothing. But we could likewise make the case that a Thanksgiving dinner is one of the most predictable buffets of Americana. Mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie and, of course, an absurdly overweight turkey all have their rightful places on the Thanksgiving table. But would it entirely upend a revered culinary tradition to add a little exotic variation to the feast? From turkey to pumpkin pie, Peru to Tahiti, these dish-by-dish suggestions will spice up this Thursday’s banquet with some global flair and fare.
French duck. Turkeys—especially monstrous ones so fat and fleshy they cannot fly—are as American as apple pie, Chevies and suburbs. While Europeans have gained a taste for our largest native fowl, other birds have traditionally taken the seat of honor at their dinner tables. In much of France, the bird of choice is the duck. Now be warned: Most of the guests on your invite list have been waiting all year for their turkey, and if you screw it up they might mob you—so only replace the turkey for a small or particularly adventurous crowd. Ducks are only a fraction of the size of a Thanksgiving turkey, often with far less meat and a thick layer of fat. Don’t expect much leftovers, even if—as might be wise—you serve two ducks. To cook, try this: Brown some hand-sized cuts of the duck with shallots and onions in a Dutch oven over a medium flame. Then add Belgian beer, dried fruit and dried herbs, put on the lid and bake for two hours. Or you might spice up the bird with ginger, green onions, garlic and sesame oil for an Asian presentation.
Peruvian mashed potatoes. The origin of Solanum tuberosum, Peru is home to thousands of varieties of potato, some of which are available in America and, mashed with milk and butter, can add color and flavor to what may be the blandest dish on the table. For a dramatic presentation of mashed potatoes, try a purple potato. In taste and texture, the dish will be negligibly different than the one you grew up on. If you wish to take the same concept a step further, separately mash and season a batch of yellow potatoes. Then, fold the two mashed potato purées together in the serving dish, leaving layers of color.
Nigerian yams. Almost everyone loves yams on Thanksgiving—or at least they think they do. Because “yam” is a misnomer commonly applied to the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), another Peruvian native. You want a real yam? Then look straight to western equatorial Africa, where four-foot-long tubers weighing as much as 100 to 150 pounds are a staple carbohydrate for millions. The vegetable, which is celebrated with annual festivals, consists of multiple species in the genus Dioscorea. Africa’s white yam (D. rotundata) is the most popular and important species, and, like sweet potatoes, may be baked or boiled for starchy, semisweet results. Yams are grown throughout the Caribbean where African cultures took root (sorry) several centuries ago. Some are exported, and in the United States this huge vegetable is available in some Caribbean and Asian supermarkets.
Belizean baked plantains. The sweet syrup that leaks from the splitting skin of a hot baked yam—I mean, sweet potato—is one sure signature of the fourth Thursday in November. But along the belt of the Equator, an abundant local alternative produces a similarly delicious result: a baked plantain. This banana-like fruit, though often eaten as a savory starch source, can be left to ripen until black in the skin and soft in the flesh, which will by now be sweet and sticky. Cooking plantains as a sweet potato alternative is a cinch: Put them in a metal baking dish and bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 or 20 minutes. When that syrup starts bubbling, the plantains are done. To serve, peel open the fruits, and the steaming flesh will fall onto the plate. Now, season as you would a yam—or melt coconut oil onto the fruit for a stronger exotic accent. Plantains grow throughout the tropics, but I name Belize as the origin of this dish simply because that’s where I first learned to make it.
Turkish fig-and-cranberry chutney. Messing around with the cranberry sauce is not as likely to draw unfriendly fire from expectant diners as, say, replacing the turkey with a scrawny avian cousin, so take this idea as far as you want. Following a Turkish theme, add dried brown figs—a major product of the nation—to your usual cranberry sauce recipe. Then, go incrementally further, ingredient at a time, to make a spice-laden chutney. Simmer the cranberries in a cup of fortified red wine (a.k.a. Port) and begin adding elements of the East: Dice and toss in the figs, some lemon and orange zest, garlic, ginger, cloves and cumin. Sweeten with honey and, after the stew has cooled, garnish with chopped mint and serve.
Tahitian stuffing with breadfruit (or taro) and coconut. Your guests may sulk at the sight of a nontraditional stuffing, so approach this idea cautiously. The theme takes us to the Pacific islands, where, lacking the culture and systems of grain cultivation, many societies rely on breadfruit as a major carbohydrate source. Cooked in its earlier stages of ripeness, this round, green, thick-skinned treefruit somewhat resembles a pineapple, but the fruit inside is as starchy and savory as bread or potatoes. Cooking breadfruit is easy; grilling or broiling thick slices with a little olive or coconut oil is a simple method. The challenge, however, may be finding the things, as our blog “Food and Think” reported three years ago. If you can’t find one of these exotic fruits, go underground for a similar result with taro, a starchy tuber of the tropics and also grown in Tahiti. Peel and halve the roots, then bake until steaming and tender. Use the breadfruit or taro as the bread in your favorite stuffing recipe. If you want some tropical sweetness in the dish, you can add cubes of fresh coconut and pineapple.
Italian porcini-chestnut gravy. Where chestnuts fall, porcini rise. That’s because Italy’s favorite mushroom happens to prefer the roots of the chestnut tree as its mycorrhizal companion, and for one who wakes early to beat the competition, a walk in the woods in November can provide a double whammy of wild gourmet loot. The mushrooms are considered relatively unmistakable, with no dangerous look-alikes (but if there’s any doubt, throw it out) and chestnuts, well, they’re as easy to harvest as pine cones. At home, de-husk the chestnuts, bake and peel. Using a blender or a hand potato masher, make a smooth paste using half the batch. Coarsely chop the rest of the chestnuts. For the mushrooms, brush off the grit, slice and dice, then sauté in olive oil until brown. Make the gravy as you normally would, using bird broth as the base and the chestnut mash as a thickener in place of flour. Add the porcini and chestnut chunks halfway through the simmering process.
Moroccan pumpkin pie. You might not subject each pie on the table to exotic experimentation, but try this idea for one: Follow your favorite pumpkin pie recipe, but reduce the quantity of molasses and make up the difference using purée of Medjool date, a variety believed to have originated in Morocco. The date is the world’s sweetest fruit, with up to 80 percent of its mass being sugar, meaning you can expect a rather seamless swap. Additionally, coarsely chop a handful of dates to fold into the pie mix. Sprinkle the pie with toasted almonds and orange zest, and you’ve got a North African rendition of America’s most sacred pie.
November 2, 2012
This is the first in the series “Faces From Afar” in which Off the Road profiles adventurous travelers exploring unique places or pursuing exotic passions. Know a globetrotter we should hear about? E-mail us at email@example.com.
Before leaving home, many travelers research ahead on key points of their destination. They investigate whether a nation is safe for visitors, what the weather will be like, if camping out will be an option and what the local cuisine will have to offer. But Lindsay Gasik and Rob Culclasure planned their year-long Southeast Asian itinerary based primarily on one entirely different question: Will there be durians?
For this young married couple from Oregon has an uncanny taste for this spiny-husked, famously fragrant tree fruit of Southeast Asia. Often described as redolent of onions, gym socks and gasoline, the durian is most famous for its smell. But those who love durian often characterize its aroma as one of pineapple, vanilla and almond—and the custard-like flesh within the fruit’s five interior chambers may drive durian devotees into mild frenzies of pleasure, and even lure some fanatics halfway around the globe. Gasik, 23, and Culclasure, 29, are now in their 11th month of pursuing and studying what Southeast Asians call the “king of fruits.” Last month, they entered the durian-thick forests of Borneo, where the fruit, which includes numerous species of the genus Durio, is believed to have originated. Prior to Borneo, the pair had zigzagged and island hopped on a strategic route that began in Sumatra and led them to Java, Lomboc, Bali, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. Like many tropical regions, Southeast Asia is a complex landscape of microclimates, and travelers on the move can, with just a little foresight and planning, expect to encounter ripe durians every single day of the year. And for being a tiny pie slice of the world’s population, Southeast Asia is heaven.
A century and a half ago, traveler and naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace praised the durian as “a new sensation worth a voyage to the East to experience.” “[I]ts consistence and flavour are indescribable,” he wrote in his 1869 book The Malay Archipelago. “A rich custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but there are occasional wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes. Then there is a rich glutinous smoothness in the pulp which nothing else possesses, but which adds to its delicacy … it is in itself perfect … and the more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop.” Indeed, some durian fans are so inspired by the rare qualities of durian that they go to extremes: They eliminate nearly every other food from their diet, call themselves “durianarians,” and, as they often describe the lifestyle, “follow the durian trail” through Southeast Asia.
But Gasik and Culclasure still eat a varied diet, with about half their calories coming from daily durian, and while their trip is largely a pursuit of a raw, fragrant pleasure, it is also a focused academic venture. Gasik is writing a book about the trip called Year of the Durian, which she hopes will be finished in about a year, and the pair has not just followed the durian trail but gone well off the beaten path to meet durian farmers, taste rare heirloom varieties and interview scientists and fruit breeders with a stake in the export-driven commercial durian industry. As Gasik said during a recent telephone interview, “We’re seeing different cultures through the lens of the durian.” The couple has, for example, made sharp observations of the different ways in which varying nations appreciate durians. They largely dismiss Thailand, the world’s leader in durian production and export, as a relevant nucleus of sophisticated durian culture. The country’s many durian farmers produce only several main varieties, and a durian tasting tour here may quickly grow monotonous.
“But when we crossed the border into Malaysia, it was a game-changer,” Culclasure said. “They have a totally different appreciation of durian there.”
For one thing, Malaysia produces hundreds of kinds of durian, from major commercial types to unusual village varieties that grow nowhere else. Many are readily available. And it’s in Malaysia and Indonesia where one finds remarkable parallels between the Western world’s appreciation of wine and Southeast Asia’s appreciation of durian: Just as particular vineyards may become famous and produce supremely expensive wine, certain durian trees may become widely known for their outstanding fruits, which sometimes are sold in advance for hundreds of dollars each. And just as older grapevines produce finer, more concentrated wines, durian trees supposedly produce better fruit with each successive crop. And just as oenophiles may take pride in their ability to describe the subtle characteristics of a wine, durian aficionados strive to develop their tasting vocabulary. And just as tourists in the rural outskirts of Napa or Bordeaux go wine tasting, tourists in the farm country of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines go durian tasting. Stalls along the roadsides may offer “flights” of durian, often served on an all-you-can-eat basis but also carefully structured around the subtle properties of each durian variety such that the lighter, more delicate durians are eaten first and the richer, denser fruits last.
Gasik and Culclasure have been familiar with frozen durians, imported from Thailand, for several years. Such durians are of the the ubiquitous Monthong variety (of the species D. zibethinus) available in Asian specialty markets in large cities worldwide. But while frozen durians do provide a taste of what this fruit can offer, the fruits—generally about five pounds—often pale in aroma, texture and flavor. By contrast, eating a tree-ripened durian just minutes off the branch is a culinary experience so potent that durian lovers may place it on their Things-I-Must-Do-Before-I-Die list. But it wasn’t until 2011 that Gasik and Culclasure began to ascend into such heights of durian fanaticism. They attended a raw foods yoga retreat in New York State called the Woodstock Fruit Festival. To kick off the gathering, the leader ordered a thousand frozen durians to last the week. The Oregonians became enraptured by the fruit. Even several months later, as Gasik recalls, “durian was all Rob could talk about. He wanted to go to Asia and live there, following ‘the durian trail’ that we’d heard of from durian veterans.” And when January came, they did just that—and the Year of the Durian began.
Now, after 300 days on the road, Gasik and Culclasure have their favorite durian varieties, including the coveted Red Prawn, the Arancillo, and the orange- and red-fleshed varieties of D. graveolens, a unique species they encountered in the Philippines. Gasik wrote on her blog that one Graveolens variety “tasted like bubblegum rolled in blue cheese.” The legendary Musang King is also one of the very best—”at least number two,” according to Gasik. They have also encountered oddities like a thornless durian variety in the Philippines with a hide as smooth as a cantaloupe, a durian in Java that weighed more than 20 pounds, another described by a friend that weighed about 30 pounds, and a virtually odorless durian—the result of a decades-long breeding project in Thailand. Now, there remain about two months of durian hunting for the Americans before they leave Southeast Asia. They have talked about visiting Zanzibar, where durians have been introduced, but are more likely to go next to Papua, Indonesia, to pursue a variety known as the Rainbow durian.
Their journey can be followed via their blog, “Year of the Durian.”