Durian – less a fruit than a gastronomic “experience”

I lived in Singapore for a while, a delightful tiny island nation off the tip of Malaysia, barely north of the Equator. While there I ate all kinds of wonderful and interesting things, especially the fruit. However, my Singaporean friends told me that my experiences would be incomplete unless I tried durian, although they were honest enough to caution me that most people tend to either love it or hate it. I fell into the smaller “dubious” category.

durian3

I find myself trying to choose my words well…hmmm.  Rather than attempt to describe it myself, let me share from Wikipedia:

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Regarded by many people in southeast Asia as the “king of fruits”, the durian is distinctive for its large size, strong odour, and formidable thorn-covered husk. The fruit can grow as large as 30 centimetres (12 in) long and 15 centimetres (6 in) in diameter, and it typically weighs one to three kilograms (2 to 7 lb). Its shape ranges from oblong to round, the colour of its husk green to brown, and its flesh pale yellow to red, depending on the species.

The edible flesh emits a distinctive odour that is strong and penetrating even when the husk is intact. Some people regard the durian as having a pleasantly sweet fragrance; others find the aroma overpowering and revolting. The smell evokes reactions from deep appreciation to intense disgust, and has been described variously as rotten onions, turpentine, and raw sewage. The persistence of its odour has led to the fruit’s banishment from certain hotels and public transportation in Southeast Asia.

The durian, native to Southeast Asia, has been known to the Western world for about 600 years. The nineteenth-century British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace famously described its flesh as “a rich custard highly flavoured with almonds”. The flesh can be consumed at various stages of ripeness, and it is used to flavour a wide variety of savoury and sweet edibles in Southeast Asian cuisines. The seeds can also be eaten when cooked.

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One aspect that is rarely emphasized, because of the focus on its infamous qualities, are the thorns, which are wickedly sharp, but are usually blunted by the time people purchase them, although they are still horribly sharp. Rather like sharp rose thorns on a heavy soccer-ball sized fruit. Ouch! But Wikipedia does have a delightful description of the odor and flavor which, although long, is worthy of reading if you appreciate well written (and sometimes graphic) descriptions of things that are hard to describe, but they will certainly make you laugh! In fact, when trying to read a portion aloud to my son, I was laughing so hard I couldn’t speak and I had to wipe my eyes.

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The unusual flavour and odour of the fruit have prompted many people to express diverse and passionate views ranging from deep appreciation to intense disgust. Writing in 1856, the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace provides a much-quoted description of the flavour of the durian:

The five cells are silky-white within, and are filled with a mass of firm, cream-coloured pulp, containing about three seeds each. This pulp is the edible part, and its consistence and flavour are indescribable. 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 neither acid nor sweet nor juicy; yet it wants neither of these qualities, for it is in itself perfect. It produces no nausea or other bad effect, and the more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop. In fact, to eat Durians is a new sensation worth a voyage to the East to experience. … as producing a food of the most exquisite flavour it is unsurpassed.

Wallace described himself as being at first reluctant to try it because of the aroma, “but in Borneo I found a ripe fruit on the ground, and, eating it out of doors, I at once became a confirmed Durian eater.” He cited one traveller from 1599: “it is of such an excellent taste that it surpasses in flavour all other fruits of the world, according to those who have tasted it.” He cites another writer: “To those not used to it, it seems at first to smell like rotten onions, but immediately after they have tasted it they prefer it to all other food. The natives give it honourable titles, exalt it, and make verses on it.” Despite having tried many foods that are arguably more eccentric, Andrew Zimmern, host of Bizarre Foods, was unable to finish a durian upon sampling it, due to his intolerance of its strong taste.

While Wallace cautions that “the smell of the ripe fruit is certainly at first disagreeable”, later descriptions by westerners are more graphic. British novelist Anthony Burgess writes that eating durian is “like eating sweet raspberry blancmange in the lavatory”. Chef Andrew Zimmern compares the taste to “completely rotten, mushy onions”. Anthony Bourdain, a lover of durian, relates his encounter with the fruit thus: “Its taste can only be described as…indescribable, something you will either love or despise. …Your breath will smell as if you’d been French-kissing your dead grandmother.” Travel and food writer Richard Sterling says:

… its odor is best described as pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock. It can be smelled from yards away. Despite its great local popularity, the raw fruit is forbidden from some establishments such as hotels, subways and airports, including public transportation in Southeast Asia.

Other comparisons have been made with the civet, sewage, stale vomit, skunk spray and used surgical swabs. The wide range of descriptions for the odour of durian may have a great deal to do with the variability of durian odour itself. Durians from different species or clones can have significantly different aromas; for example, red durian (D. dulcis) has a deep caramel flavour with a turpentine odour while red-fleshed durian (D. graveolens) emits a fragrance of roasted almonds. Among the varieties of D. zibethinus, Thai varieties are sweeter in flavour and less odorous than Malay ones. The degree of ripeness has an effect on the flavour as well. Three scientific analyses of the composition of durian aroma — from 1972, 1980, and 1995 — each found a mix of volatile compounds including esters, ketones, and different sulphur compounds, with no agreement on which may be primarily responsible for the distinctive odour.

This strong odour can be detected half a mile away by animals, thus luring them. In addition, the fruit is extremely appetising to a variety of animals, including squirrels, mouse deer, pigs, orangutan, elephants, and even carnivorous tigers. While some of these animals eat the fruit and dispose of the seed under the parent plant, others swallow the seed with the fruit and then transport it some distance before excreting, with the seed being dispersed as a result. The thorny, armoured covering of the fruit discourages smaller animals; larger animals are more likely to transport the seeds far from the parent tree.

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I underlined the parts: “…the more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop…” and the one about loving it or despising it.

Here is one of many videos (a little long) about eating durian for the first time – reactions run the gamut.

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