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A Tale of Two Fruits: The Colonial History of Durian and Mangosteen

Although both durian and mangosteen are native to Southeast Asia, their reputation — especially from a western point of view — leads two very contrasting fates: the latter is considered a luscious delicacy while the former usually finds itself at the center of many insult-throwing contests.

These contrasting attitudes can be easily spotted in hundreds of travelogues written by Europeans, both colonizers and non-colonizers, who traveled to the “Far East.” Henry Adams, an American historian, wrote in 1891 in Letters to a Niece and Prayer to the Virgin of Charters, documenting his trip to Java, part of modern-day Indonesia: “The durian is, in my opinion, a fraud. I can see nothing to recommend it. Walnuts and very bad cheese, in a soft paste, with a horse-chestnut inside, would be as good.”

When it comes to mangosteen, Adams praised: “It is like a Japanese purple-lacquered fig, with a ball of white sherbet inside. From a sense of duty — because I may never have another chance — I have eaten as many as I could.”

Illustration by Hannah Hoàng.

As Pierre Bourdieu points out in his 1987 book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, taste is not simply defined by matters of physiology and personal preference, but is also shaped by social relations. Sampling fruits and documenting their characteristics, therefore, could also be viewed in this way.

Much of Asia's fruit history is less often written by natives of the places where the fruits are consumed and understood, but documented by incomplete empirical accounts. These stories are often influenced by a heavy dose of exoticism and xenophobia and thus, usually serve to reinforce an imperial gaze and western imaginations. Hence, it's safe to say that one's attitude towards fruit — or food in general — in contemporary everyday life carries freckles of the history of a colonial past.

Plants of an imagined geography

Most of the historical knowledge about durian and mangosteen originated from Europeans who traveled to Southeast Asia with the purpose of collecting information about the region's botany. In the 15th century, Portugal, the Netherlands and Spain gained more economic power to build their empires and thus expanded their territories eastwards.

A map of Asia by Dutch voyagers. Photo via Rare Maps.

An important concept in post-colonial expert Edward Said's 1987 opus Orientalism is imagined geographies. Said argues that western thought, rooted in binary logic, often projects a monolithic image on the “Orient” — which mostly refers to Islamic and Confucian states — as a way to differentiate other geographic locations from the western hemisphere. The so-called “Far East” is thus imagined as untamed, irrational, unruly and feminine, as opposed to rational, scientific and masculine. This logic of “othering” becomes the justification for imperialism.

Under the imagined geographies mentality, there is the notion of the “tropics.” According to historian David Arnold, the idea of tropicality is a western ideology fixated on articulating tropical climate as an inherent characteristic that set the East apart from the West. Thus, the locations that are deemed tropical need to be civilized.

“It is like a Japanese purple-lacquered fig, with a ball of white sherbet inside. From a sense of duty — because I may never have another chance — I have eaten as many as I could.” — American historian Henry Adams on mangosteen.

Renaissance notions of Eden, or paradise helped reinforce this thinking. The idea that there exists an exotic paradise in the tropical islands of the Far East that needs to be searched for and tamed fits European imaginations and aspirations. 

This idea of tropicality goes hand-in-hand with the emergence of botanical science and botanical gardens during this early colonial period. The plants and fruits native to the tropical islands in the East become a subject of interest, which soon gave rise to botanica empiricism — the practice of collecting and studying Asian plant samples. Europeans were advised to travel to the eastern part of the world to observe and collect materials to build and enrich the western wealth of knowledge on Asian botany. These observations were documented in travelogues and botanical illustrations.

Albert Eckhout, East Indian Market Stall in Batavia (1640–1666), oil on canvas. Image via Rijks Museum.

Commercial pressure also drove empiricism. After all, collecting plants from a foreign place solely for study could be a wasteful pastime in the eyes of the state. Botanica empiricism was therefore used as a way to serve a means: commodifying and exploiting others' plants for profit. According to Syed Hussein Alatas's The Myth of the Lazy Native, when European colonialism entered the region, it destroyed the indigenous trading class in the Philippines, Java and Malaya. Peach, mango and pineapple are examples of colonial commodities that were gathered and sold back home for great profit.

As Garcia de Orta, a famous Portuguese naturalist once described: “The Portuguese, who navigate over a greater part of the world only to procure a knowledge of how best to dispose of that merchandise of what they bring here and what they shall take back. They are not desirous of knowing anything about the things in the countries they visit.”

Durian and mangosteen, however, never really became major colonial commodities.

The lusciousness of the mangosteen

A still life of mangosteen by Trần Đình Nghĩa. Image via Trường Vẽ Gia Định.

Mangosteen's true origin remains unknown. Many believe the fruit is native to the Maya Archipelago and the Moluccas in Indonesia. 

The first appearance of the fruit in European botany documents dates back to 1753 when Carl Linnaeus — a Swedish botanist, physician and zoologist — included mangosteen in Species Plantarum. Linnaeus also coined the mangosteen's scientific name, Garcinia mangostana, after Laurentious Garcin, a French-Swiss explorer and botanist who listed the description of mangosteen in Philosophical Transactions.

It is unclear when and how the fruit made its entrance into Vietnam, since different documents suggest different stories. Although most agree that the southern region of Vietnam was the first home of the fruit, the question of who brought it here is more contentious.

Manuel de conversation Francaise-Annamite suggests that mangosteen was first brought to Vietnam via Lai Thieu by a French bishop named D'Adran, a member of the De La Salle Brothers congregation. Another source suggests Pierre Pigneau de Behaine — a French Catholic priest whose Vietnamese name is Bá Đa Lộc — was the first person to bring it to Vietnam. Another account contends that mangosteen was introduced to Saigon through river trade routes, where many non-native plants were introduced under the rule of Nguyễn Ánh during the late 18th century.

Botanical print in Lamarck Histoire Naturelle. Image via Panteek.

Mangosteen is the symbol of an untapped part of the exotic East that the western hemisphere lusts after. Despite being praised for its rosy smell and simultaneously sweet and sour taste, mangosteen's cultivation rarely goes outside of tropical borders as it takes only a few days to go bad, making exports difficult.

On occasions, the plant was grown in English greenhouses in the 1880s and its population reached the West Indies. Eliza Scidmore, an American geographer, noted that it cannot survive long voyages, “not even with the aid of modern ships' refrigerating-machines and when coated with wax – as in less than a week after leaving the trees the pulp melts away to a brown mass. [sic]”

Tasting mangosteen then becomes a sensory privilege because of its inability to travel outside of Asia, a privilege even the Queen couldn't experience.

The odorous durian and unruly natives

If the mangosteen is the luscious fruit representing the gifts that the tropical garden has to offer in European imaginations, the durian is a danger it has to overcome. It is common knowledge that most people in Southeast Asia enjoy the delightful aroma and the taste of durian, while most westerners shiver in disgust.

Even today, durian is the subject of many reaction videos where ethnic food is often removed from context and put under the microscope of the white gaze. Being Vietnamese with access to the English-language internet means many things; one of which involves being exposed to a culture where the fruit one and one's family holds dear is constantly ridiculed. A sense of otherness, ironically, can even be felt in the convenience of one's own country. The attitude of disgust against durian is not a recent phenomenon. In fact, it's a remnant of a colonial ideology.

The durian is believed to have originated from Borneo and Sumatra and holds a noble place in Southeast Asian and South Asian countries. The local trading network of durians has always been busy, even before the colonial period. In Vietnam, similar to the mangosteen, some contend that the fruit was brought to the country through the riverine network. Another theory suggests that durian was popularized by the Hoa community in Lái Thiêu and the French priest Pierre Pigneau de Behaine.

Despite local admiration, the fruit drew curiosity from colonizers. Contrary to popular beliefs, the attitudes of early colonizers in Southeast Asia — the Portuguese and the Dutch — towards durian, albeit heavily exoticized, were very positive.

A durian illustration by Hoola van Nooten (left) and an illustration by unknown artist published in Văn Hóa Nguyệt San (right). Photo via Wikipedia and Tri Thức VN.

The first writing about durian was attributed to Nicolo de Conti, an early 15th-century Italian merchant who traveled extensively from Venice to the Cham Kingdom, which is part of southern Vietnam today. In his writing, Conti equates the taste of durian to that of cheese, which was highly regarded back then. This comment, printed in De varietate fortunae, had a foundational influence on early conceptions of western perceptions of the durian.

According to the sociology scholar Andrea Montanari, Europeans first encountered durian in Portuguese Malacca, where the fruit was a subject of scientific interest. The fruit entered Western culture as the “king of fruit,” a title that still exists today. Portuguese apothecary Tome Pires used to regard the durian as charming, handsome and "the best fruit in the world."

“If the mangosteen is the luscious fruit representing the gifts that the tropical garden has to offer in European imaginations, the durian is a danger it has to overcome. It is common knowledge that most people in Southeast Asia enjoy the delightful aroma and the taste of durian, while most westerners shiver in disgust.”

The growing sense of disgust directed at the durian among Europeans didn't start until the 17th century when colonizers were starting to place an emphasis on smell. Yet, accounts during this time were still even-handed, positioning the smell as offensive to the nose but praising the taste. However, this growing sense of nausea shifted to disgust when the British overtook the Dutch and Portuguese in the region.

According to Montanari, during British rule, the durian — which once “tasted like fine cheese” — disappeared from the colonial table and was positioned as a disgusting and uncivilized fruit. As social class and structures grew more rigid and natives were classified as odorous, durian was articulated as a mark of difference between the elite class and the unruly natives.

Durian illustration by William Farquhar, early 19th century, National Museum of Singapore. Image via Roots.

At this time, durian was deemed as not having much commercial potential, as it was only tasty to natives, which resulted in European colonizers missing out on an untapped market as the result of their own social prejudices. Cultural tourism, however, thrived on this: scenes of natives enjoying durians became a spectacle many tourists and travelers found amusing. In the eyes of western tourists, natives were akin to animals savagely fighting over durian.

However, this spectator experience gave way to culinary tourism and the notion that overcoming the durian stench, like extreme sports and horror movies, is an “achievement, a growth of ego.” 

According to history professor Daniel Bender, there are subtle ways in which native people resisted the visitors, noting that “service brought a comforting sense of power to visitors. It also gave them the uneasy realization that as they tasted, savored, or rejected strange foods they were being watched, often with amusement.”

Indeed, a short story in Vietnamese published in Văn Hóa Nguyệt San in 1955 recounts how this oppositional gaze played out. The article tells a story about a French scientist who visited a Vietnamese household in the early 19th century and was invited to taste durian for dessert. As the French visitor, who had never tasted durian before, was panicking and sweating profusely while eating the fruit out of politeness to the host, the hosts watched with amusement.

“The encounter around durian, the explanation for the fruit’s aromas, the experience of westerners as they forced themselves to overcome its stench, and the way natives openly enjoyed watching a stranger’s first taste of the fruit all encapsulated in the sensorium the pleasures and challenges of imperial rule: conquest, the articulation of difference, and the careful hidden ways colonized peoples could laugh at their rulers,” Bender adds.

This article was originally published in 2018.

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