There is little danger of being unable to get your ‘five-a-day’ in Thailand. Indeed, the ubiquitous street vendors sell so many varieties of fruit it is hard to stop yourself from going beyond the magic number. Pineapples cut into intricate corkscrews, slithers of green mangoes, chilled wedges of watermelon, bags of sweet jackfruit, tangerines with an unfamiliar green skin, deep purple mangosteens, alien-like spiky lychees, freshly cut coconuts with luridly coloured straws peeping from the top and bunches of longan berries, which look disturbingly like potatoes, are all available in huge quantities for no more than a few baht.
Chief among these exotic fruits, though, is the infamous durian, one of South East Asia’s most well known delicacies and something any bold food adventurer simply has to try. Durian look like the pre-historic eggs of an animal dreamed up by HG Wells but it is the smell that makes this particular fruit so notorious.
Put in the simplest language possible, durian stinks. It stinks like nothing I have ever smelt before. It stinks enough to make you check your pants just to make sure that last fart you did was no more than mere gas. Whilst strolling the streets of Bangkok you may occasionally be overwhelmed by the stench from the city’s primitive sewage system. The only trouble is that the city’s sewage system is far from primitive and the smell is, in fact, coming from a near-by durian seller. It is illegal to take the fruit on public transport and you will struggle to find a hotel that permits it onto the premises. And everything you have heard about this spiky, deadly looking fruit is true.
Even wrapped tightly in impermeable plastic, the fetid stench is quite overwhelming. Imagine the smell of an open latrine after a starving army, plagued with dysentery, had been fed on onions, eggs, broccoli, cabbage and laxatives and you are in the right sort of Ball Park. It is a smell that gets into your nostrils and will not let go. It is quite, quite foul. But also bizarrely curious.
After we bought some I was drawn to the fruit, like a fly pulled towards the fatal beauty of a glowing blue light. We unwrapped the plastic and placed the strange pale yellow insides onto a plate. They looked like the kidneys from an alien species. Initially the smell was faint but as the fruit breathed it began to get stronger. Onion was the first discernable scent to emit from the custard yellow cheese-like orbs, closely followed by an increasingly fetid funk of rotting brassicas, like a neglected vegetable tray in the bottom of a fridge.
Before I passed out I felt it wise to pop some in my mouth just to see if the myths were true, namely it may smell like a dead sloth stuffed with garlic but don’t let that put you off because the taste is quite heavenly.
Until you actually taste it, it is hard to believe that this is the case. Taste and smell are so closely related that we often get the two confused: eat a piece of apple whilst holding a pear under your nose and you taste pear rather than apple. Surely with the two senses so close, there can’t be that much discrepancy between the full on nasal assault and the flavour of durian?
But anyone who has tried it knows that this is the case. Durian is delicious in a way that renders you quite speechless. It causes your eyes to widen in utter surprise, it dances across the tastebuds and tickles parts of your mouth in a way I have never experienced before. It is soft and creamy, custardy and sweet. Sure, there is the faintest taste of onion but that is only a mere flutter in the background – as if the smell and taste are only the most distantly related cousins. There is a delicate cheesiness to both the flavour and texture, which in my book is no bad thing. And once you have tasted it, the smell really isn’t that bad. There is a scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where, on his final leg of the journey, the eponymous hero has to walk across a seemingly vast chasm. But it is just an optical illusion and there was a bridge there all along. Well, durian is like that. Once you’ve stepped into the abyss, you can’t help but wonder what all the fuss was about.
We tucked the plastic tray and wrapping into the bin, went to bed happy and slept well no doubt thanks to the bottle of Thai whiskey we had successfully polished off.
On waking up however, we were greeted with an eye-wateringly bad smell. For a bleary eyed hour we levelled comedy accusations at each other until the stench became so bad we had to ascertain from where it was emanating. A tiny sniff taken in the direction of the bin had me retching into the toilet unable to escape the raw fetidity of the stench that greeted me. The plastic tray had contaminated the bin and subsequently the entire room. It quickly went onto the balcony. Now I understand the ban. We checked out of the hotel the same day.