Monday, 4 August 2008

Feeling Fruity - Durian

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.


dp said...

My coworkers think I'm crazy because I'm laughing at my computer screen.

I really can't remember the smell being that foul. Granted, it's been 8 years since I last had it fresh. Now I only get the candy paste whenever mom brings it back. The paste is also quite pungent. But it is my favorite of all Thai fruits. I'll eat so much that it will give me heartburn.

Did you notice that jackfruit has a smell as well? Not as strong as durian, but still very noticeable. Kinda like rotting bananas. I brought some to work and my coworker said there was a hint of onion in the aftertaste. Interesting that you and she kinda said the same thing about both fruits...

Maggie said...

Great description and story! My father is desperate to find one in the states to try it.

Anonymous said...

Wow, you are a brave soul. I love Southeast Asian tropical fruits, but I still have not been able to taste this stinky fruit, which you call delicious :) Delicious and durian just never made it as a combo in my vocabulary! Anyhow, keep on the look out for signs that forbid durian, because I know they exist in some countries!

Alicia Foodycat said...

My husband is really hoping that we can try durian this year... I'm not so sure.

The spiky ones are rambutans, not lychees!

Anonymous said...

This post is an absolute joy, Alex. Thanks for the laughs! (And the memories, I can almost smell it now!)

When you've been home long enough that you're starting to miss that sweet sweet aroma, you'll probably find that you can buy them (whole) in the freezer cabinets of really good south east Asian grocers.

Or if you don't have one of those, you can buy a product called durian cake, which is a sweetened semi-dried durian pulp. It's got all the flavor but not as much smell. :)

Thip said...

Now you know that don't let your nose fool you. Great explaination on the writing.

Nate @ House of Annie said...

I had the same reaction when I was first confronted with durian in Malaysia. It must have been a test for my (future) in-laws to see whether this American Born Chinese would eat this stuff. Only then would they give their blessing.

Luckily, I passed before passing out ;-)

Just Cook It said...

DP - Glad it made you giggle. I agree, of all the fruits I had, this was probably the best. Although the paste was not so good. I did try jackfruit but it was nowhere near as good as the durian.

Maggie - Thank you. You should be able to get it in an Asian supermarket. Good luck and let me knwo if you find it.

Selina - You should give it a go, even if just to say you've tried it! It is really, really good

Foodycat - Do it! I didn't think they were lychees. Rambutans, that's it. They're good too.

Tom - Thanks so much, really pleased you liked the post so thanks for the kind words. I reckon I might head to the Asian grocers within the next couple of weeks to pick some up, mmmmm.

Thip - Thank you!

nate-n-annie - glad you passed the test! As far as initiations go, it's a pretty good one.

Lydia said...

Hi.. greeting from Malaysia. To most of us (Malaysian), Thai durian is not as "stink" as Malaysian durian. Guess what, we prefer the skinky one... ^_*

Dave said...

My first experience with durian was in 1995, at a gathering of members of the old Fidonet National Cooking Echo. It was a day-long picnic; one of the Echo members thought that it would be entertaining to expose the others to a strange and exotic fruit that most of them were likely never to have heard, let alone tasted. He brought a whole, ripe fruit. We split it with a heavy meat cleaver and a hammer to get at the deliciousness within.

At the time, I described the flavor as "eating vanilla custard in the head of a garlic freighter."

tigerfish said...

Did you hold your breath when you get so close to the durians (in the pix)?
I love durians. To me, they smell good and taste good :D
I prefer Malaysian durians to Thai durians though. Yes, they have different textures and taste in durians too!

Anonymous said...

Hahahaha.. that's so hilarious! Well, I don't blame those who dislike durians. Anyone who'd seen Andrew Zimmerman nearly puked after a bitefull of Durians would be detered from it. To see a man like him who ate rotten Shark meat, balut, turtle blood and heart, etc can't accept durians is totally ridiculous :-P In your case, you tried and you have the verdict! Bravo!

As for me, I'm crazy about durians! I love to choose them myself and cut them up. Fun part was after you brought them home in car, your car smelled durians for's so heavenly LOL BTW, if you want to get rid of the smell from your fingers or palms in case you don't want people to know you ate durians before meeting them, just use the seeds and wash your hands by rubbing it against your fingers, palms under running water. The smell would disappear! Eat aubergine or eggplant after you eat durians... it's said to get rid of the smell after you burp LOL Try really works. Once i even told a friend to wash her mouth with the seed instead of eating aubergine cos she kept complaining that eating aubergine is too 'windy' (yin yang theory) and she's scared of gases... LOL

Phoebe Lim said...

I think the problem is the lingering smell that won't go away even after repeated washing. Whether it is the hand or the mouth or whatever it touches. I tried washing my hands with the seeds like what pixen said. But it didn't last long. The smell came back.

But it isn't the worst smell I have encountered. That would be the "smelly tofu" commonly found in Taiwan and Hong Kong. It is like stale sewage.

Just Cook It said...

Hi Lydia, thanks for your message. I'd love to try a Malaysian durian at some point just to see the difference.

dave - that is such a wonderful description that nails it pretty much perfectly.

tigerfish - I don't remember holding my breath but I certainly wasn't that close for very long! Thanks for the comment

pixen - thanks for the comment, glad you liked it. I remember seeing Andrew Zimmern unable to eat durian, made me feel quite proud that I got through it!

phoebe - thanks for leaving a comment. I have heard about stinky tofu which by all accounts smells significantly worse than durian. Something to add to the 'to try' list I guess!