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Learning to love durian: why the world's stinkiest fruit is better than wine, cheese or chocolate

Durian. No other fruit creates such conflicting opinions. Throughout Southeast Asia the green, hedgehog-shaped "king of the fruits" is appreciated as haute cuisine to be savored like wine or truffles. Westerners, however, are confounded by the hype because, well, durians smell like road kill wrapped in sweaty socks and have the texture of rotten bananas. We nod our heads in approval when we see "No Durian" signs in swanky hotel lobbies and on the Singapore Metro.

I was first introduced to Durian when I was 20 years old in Chiang Mai, Thailand. My Thai friends told me to take it slow and start with durian ice cream or cookies, which capture the flavor but not the smell. They were right -- the absence of the intense odor helps get the stuff down, but I still wasn't crazy about the flavor; the almost-tangy, near-putrid aftertaste lingers for several minutes even after being baked into a biscuit. Durian, in any form, doesn't want you to forget it.

Years went by and I tried durian in several countries. I politely ate small bites when they were offered to me by locals, I once ate a big slab of it at the bottom of an ice cendol (a sugary Malaysian shaved ice dessert) and in the center fillings of chocolates, and I found out that durian means "thorny" in Indonesian and that you can potentially kill a person by throwing one at someone's head. But I still didn't think it tasted very good.
Then, a few months ago, almost 20 years after my first durian experience, I arrived in Malaysia at the height of durian season. The fruit, in a dizzying number of varietals, was displayed in stall after stall at markets and along roadsides. Locals were scrambling to get in as much durian eating as they could and the smell was everywhere. After a few weeks of inhaling the odor daily, for some strange reason, it stopped smelling bad and actually made me hungry. I wanted to eat durian. It was weird.

So while in Melaka I asked my friends Brandon and Choo if they could take me out to show me what all the hullabaloo was about. They were thrilled.

We drove to a small temporary wood shack along a busy road. Choo explained to the owners of this glorified fruit stand why I was here and their eyes immediately sparkled with purpose. It's not everyday a Westerner wants to learn about durian and they were going to do their darnedest to make sure I left loving their fruit. My two friends and I were graciously seated at a simple wooden table behind the fruit rack.

"Sweet or creamy?" was the first question.

I had no idea.

They decided it was best to start with sweet and brought me a varietal called D13.

We cut open the fruit and dug in with our fingers, pulling out individual sections, each with a hazelnut-sized seed in the middle. The durian pulp was as slimy as I remembered, but without the smell bothering me there was no psychological barrier getting it in my mouth. Then, the surprise: It tasted like sugar cream, a little like creme brulee but with more personality. I took more bites and the flavor deepened. The overall taste was sweet, more wholesome than sugar, more pure than a peach or a berry; in fact it was the best sweet thing I'd ever eaten in my life. How had I not experienced real durian like this before? Had the others been un-ripe or inferior varietals? No one could answer these questions.

"Maybe your palate has matured," Brandon suggested.

We finished the sweet durian and now it was time for the creamy one, a durian susu. This fruit had bigger pods than the first and the luscious sugary flavor was more subtle. It made up for this in texture. It was like half-solidified whipped cream crossed with a marshmallow. Ecstatically enveloped in an unbearable lightness of gustatory being, I ate more, and as I did I liked it more. Unfortunately each of the two fruits were almost the size of my own head and by the middle of the durian susu I was absolutely stuffed.

I could eat no more but luckily my Malaysian friends had better stomach capacity than I and finished off the last of the sections.

To end the fruit orgy, we each took the shell of about a quarter of a durian, filled it with slightly salted water and drank it down in a few gulps. This I was told is to cool the body since durians generate internal heat. It can also stop you from sweating durian smell the next day. For this, I was glad. Next we ran cold water through the husks to wash our hands, apparently the best way to get the stink off. It worked. As far as I could tell we left without a hint of eau de damp socks.

"You are now an honorary Asian," Brandon said as we left.

And, as un-Asian as I may be, I felt like it. I had moved to the other side where durian is the indisputable king of the fruits. In my opinion durian is better than wine, cheese, chocolate (hard to say but true) and just about anything else edible on our planet. So believe me, it's worth trying again and again. Start with the ice cream, hold your nose and let your taste buds lead you to bliss.

[flickr image via YIM Hafiz]

Filed under: Food and Drink, Stories, Asia, Malaysia, Thailand

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