Rejected by outsiders for its pungent odor, the durian fruit is beloved across Southeast Asia. The thick husk hides a delightfully creamy pulp within.
I’ll never forget my first real encounter with the botanical renegade known as durian.
I had heard stories about “the king of fruit” that left me wondering how it could be so offensive to some palates and so seductive to others. I may have even inhaled its unique aroma as I traipsed through street markets, unaware of what I was smelling. It was inevitable, I guess, that one day the fruit would grab me by the collar and refuse to let me go.
It happened many years ago in the town of Bukittinggi, in the western highlands of the massive Indonesian island of Sumatra. The previous day, I had disembarked in Padang from an interisland freighter, muscled my backpack to the bus station, and climbed aboard a local conveyance to the next point of interest recommended by Lonely Planet, whatever that may have been.
An Aussie rocker named Peter had materialized as my short-term traveling companion. I remember his shaved head, gold earring and little else about him, even though we had decided to save money by sharing a budget hotel room that probably cost about US$5/night. I do remember that Peter was badly in need of a shower. (I’m sure I was, as well.) But in lieu of a well-water dousing, he went out for a short walk around town.
I napped. About an hour later, he burst into the room in a frustrated bluster. “I bought us something,” he exclaimed, “but they won’t let me bring it into the room!”
What in the world would be prohibited from a fleabag hotel, I pondered, unless it was drugs or loose women? A baby tiger?
“You’ll have to come outside!” Peter continued. “We’ll eat it there!”
What? No durian?
Decades later, I know that there is no one durian. Indeed, there are at least 30 species. The ripe fruit may be green, brown, yellow or even rosy. But every mature pod appears as threatening as a medieval mace, a truncheon far more deadly than a coconut.
Peter had cautiously set his herbaceous treasure on a concrete ledge outside the hotel door, just beneath a “NO DURIAN” sign. I examined the offering. It was about the size of a oblong soccer ball and was everywhere covered with thick thorns (indeed, spikes), an effective chastity belt thwarting any who would violate the virgin fruit for the sweet temptations within. I gingerly lifted it by a thin stem; it was heavy, maybe about 5 pounds (over 2 kg).
It’s not the size nor the natural fortification, however, that make the durian a pariah at hotels, on public transportation, and undoubtedly at Crazy Rich Asians-style cocktail parties. It’s the fruit’s peculiar odor.
I write this at my table in Vietnam’s central hill country, where the durian is known as sầu riêng. I smell the fruit’s singular aroma with each sweep of the floor fan across the room. Clearly, I don’t find the fragrance disagreeable, which is why the shell of a half-eaten durian is within arm’s reach as I type.
Others are not as impressed. My literary friend Richard Sterling, a longtime Asian gourmet who lives in Cambodia, says of durian: “Its odor is best described as pig excrement, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock.” He perhaps thought he was being charitable. Andrew Zimmern, the host of TV’s Bizarre Foods, was so repelled by the smell that he had one taste and said never again.
My culinary adviser, Ms. Lan, assured me that sầu riêng is best when it has fallen from the tree to the ground, and has not been commercially harvested. She also told me the specific durian that is on my table is a hybrid variety, perhaps a clone of the very common Durio zibethinus with something of less pungent smell and a milder flavor.
On that day in 1976, Peter used Western ingenuity by dropping the durian on the pavement until the thickly spiked husk split. Then we took our Swiss army knives — a backpacker’s best friend in those days — and sliced the orb into two more-or-less-equal halves.
Cradled within the intimidating rind was a fruit like I had never tasted, like I had never even imagined that I would ever taste. Not quite banana-yellow in color; nestled in cribs around avocado-like seeds, as if the abandoned progeny of triffids; the individual segments promised a creamy first taste … but then what? I could ignore the garbage smell. I had to try.
Peter looked at me wide-eyed, awaiting my judgment.
“It’s like eating garlic custard,” I finally told him, “while standing over an open sewer.” (Full disclosure: I could have sworn I read that quote from author Rudyard Kipling, but I can’t find even a close approximation online, so until I do I’ll claim it as my own.)
Although the smell and taste vary slightly from durian to durian, I can tell you today that I now find the aroma to be mildly sweet rather than trashy. There is definitely a garlic overtone, one that lingers longer on the palate than the smell stays in the sinuses. The texture is blatantly buttery. The overall sensation is like slurping a full-bodied cream cheese flavored with almonds, overcooked onions and maybe a touch of caramel.
That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.