When I was 19, I spent a summer in Indonesia. That was the first time I heard of a very unusual tropical fruit called durian. Prior to that time, my experience with tropical fruits was limited to relatively familiar ones such as pineapple, banana, mango, and papaya. But durian, which is sometimes called “the king of fruits,” was definitely something different. A missionary told me they have a saying about the fruit: “smells like hell, tastes like heaven.” Whatever else could be said about it, it seemed to provoke very strong reactions from people—either they loved it or they hated it. Unfortunately, durian was out of season at the time, and though I heard that durian ice cream was easy to find, I never actually encountered any.
A decade and a half later, I was living in Vancouver, British Columbia. On an expedition to my favorite Chinese supermarket, I came across a package of frozen durian and thought this would be the ideal way to try it. But I wanted to save it for a special occasion when I could share it with some friends, and before that occasion arose, I went on vacation. I returned to find that the refrigerator had broken down while I was gone, and the freezer—well, the entire house, actually—had a very strong and very foul odor, which I traced to the once-frozen container of fruit. The package of durian went in the trash and was forgotten. I did once have a piece of durian cake at a local bakery—a thoroughly unpleasant experience, I must say—but other than that, durian remained outside my consciousness.
Keep Out of Reach of Children
Since then, however, I’ve heard durian mentioned a few times, and in the noble pursuit of interesting things, I felt it was time to revisit durian. I picked up a City CarShare car and headed to Chinatown. I had read that the fruit’s growing season ran from roughly March through May, so I figured I just might get lucky and find some fresh durian in one of the many produce markets there. It took about half a dozen tries, but I did eventually find a market with a large bin of durian. I selected the smallest one—which was still about the size of a small watermelon—and took it to the counter. The cost for a 5-lb. (2kg) durian: a whopping US$20. But no matter: I was on a quest. The fruit was greenish-brown and covered with sharp, hard spikes. It looked very much like a mace, and could no doubt be used as one. The sharp spikes, along with the sharp odor, are no doubt nature’s way of saying “stay away,” but sometimes such warnings must be ignored in the pursuit of culinary adventure.
I put the durian—which was sealed securely in a plastic bag—in the car while I did some other shopping. Returning less than an hour later, a strong, pungent odor filled the whole car. I rolled down all the windows and drove around for an hour—the car still smelled. I took the durian home, hermetically sealed it in three layers of plastic bags, and went out again. After another hour I returned, opened the door, and immediately confronted the same strong smell. It’s a vaguely fruity smell, in the way that apples rotting in a manure pile smell vaguely fruity. It’s hard to say quite what it smells like, but it isn’t likely to become an air freshener or cologne scent. And the scent is very tenacious—plastic won’t stop it, it sticks to everything, and it dissipates very, very slowly.
The Taste Sensation
Well, smell or no smell, I had to find out what fresh durian tasted like. I sliced it open and found several pulpy masses inside, and at the center of each one, a hard pit. I cut a small piece of the edible flesh for myself and one for my wife, who bravely volunteered to assist in the experiment. The smell, of course, was worse on the inside than on the outside, and just as the fruit was about to touch my lips (that is, coming in very close proximity to my nose) I nearly lost the will to eat it. At such close range the smell is very, very off-putting—almost oniony, which is not what you expect from a fruit. We ate. After the first bite, Morgen said, “Wow, that’s so delicious!” And I was thinking: “Wow, that’s slightly more edible than I had imagined.” The texture is very soft and creamy, almost like an avocado, but slightly fibrous. The flavor is rather hard to pin down; Morgen said it reminded her a bit of a piña colada—a sort of mishmash of tropical flavors. But with each successive bite, we both found the experience less and less satisfying. The oniony smell also translated into an acidic, oniony aftertaste. After just a few bites, we agreed that the experiment had been completed, and we hustled the remains of the fruit out of the house.
Durian is grown in Southeast Asia and several other tropical regions and exported—either fresh or frozen—anywhere there’s a market for it, which is to say, anywhere there are masochists. I’m sure there must be people who genuinely enjoy the taste, but durian recipes are few and far between. From what I’ve read, it is actually very difficult to find durian at the precise peak of ripeness; supposedly, it’s overripe durian that gives the fruit its bad reputation, and only a trained professional—yes, there really are such people—can pick out a durian you’ll really love. I have yet to meet such a person, so for the time being I’ll continue regarding durian as a very useful tool for ridding yourself of an unwanted roommate or spouse, or perhaps defending your household against vampires or invading armies. —Joe Kissell