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August 23, 2005

Durio zibethinus

I count any day an overall success if it involves eating durian.

If you don't know what a durian is, rest assured there is no way I can explain it to you online. Oh, I can send you to web pages with lots of accurate and evocative information on this king of fruits, including amusing anecdotes about people getting thrown out of fancy hotels for carrying durians into their rooms. In its day, The Rite Of Spring caused uproars in fancy hotels, but you wouldn't expect to get the gist of it by reading a web page.

I could try to attempt to describe what it's like to eat durian: a custard with a persistent inner skin, redolent of vanilla and fermentation and perhaps a hint of onion, with a smell like an open sewer? Nope, that's both too coarse and too kind.

I'll resort to appeal to authority, in this case Alfred Wallace, the autodidact natural historian who co-originated the theory of Natural Selection with Charles Darwin. In his book The Malay Archipelago, Wallace describes the fruit's taste:

"A rich butter-like custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but intermingled with it comes wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, brown sherry, and other incongruities."

Fifteen years ago I bought a whole durian in Oakland's Chinatown and ate it while Matthew was visiting. I quoted the above passage aloud. Matthew took his first taste, nodded, and said "He left out 'match heads.'"

Wallace's description continues:

"Then there is a rich glutinous smoothness in the pulp which nothing else possesses, but which adds to its delicacy. It is neither acid, nor sweet, nor juicy, yet one feels the want of none of these qualities, for it is perfect as it is. It produces no nausea, or other bad effect, and the more you eat of it, the less you feel inclined to stop. In fact to eat durians is a new sensation, worth a voyage to the east to experience."

When I ate my fiirst durian, I had been reading of them for a year or so, with increasing curiosity. At the time I lived in Arlington, Virginia. A Vietnamese bakery around the corner from my house opened up. I walked into their grand opening celebration. There, behind the shiny glass counter, uncut and nicely frosted, was a durian cake. I ordered a slice. The clerk-baker-owner beamed at me, said "adventurous man!" I hurried home with the cake, ate it standing up at the kitchen counter.

My life has not been the same since.

But "adventurous" was a magnanimous term. The true adventure in eating durian may lie in the harvest. Here's Wallace again, on the natural history of the tree:

"The Durian grows on a large and lofty forest tree, somewhat resembling an elm in its general character, but with a more smooth and scaly bark. The fruit is round or slightly oval, about the size of a large cocoanut, of a green colour, and covered all over with short stout spines, the bases of which touch each other, and are consequently somewhat hexagonal, while the points are very strong and sharp. It is so completely armed, that if the stalk is broken off it is a difficult matter to lift one from the ground. The outer rind is so thick and tough, that from whatever height it may fall, it is never broken. From the base to the apex five very faint lines may be traced, over which the spines arch a little; these are the sutures of the carpels, and show where the fruit may be divided with a heavy knife and a strong hand....

"When the fruit is ripe it falls of itself, and the only way to eat Durians to perfection is to get them as they fall; and the smell is then less overpowering. When unripe, it makes a very good vegetable if cooked, and it is also eaten by the Dyaks raw. In a good fruit season large quantities are preserved salted, in jars and bamboos, and kept the year round, when it acquires a most disgusting odour to Europeans, but the Dyaks appreciate it highly as a relish with their rice.

"The Durian is, however, sometimes dangerous. When the fruit begins to ripen it falls daily and almost hourly, and accidents not unfrequently happen to persons walking or working under the trees. When a Durian strikes a man in its fall, it produces a dreadful wound, the strong spines tearing open the flesh, while the blow itself is very heavy; but from this very circumstance death rarely ensues, the copious effusion of blood preventing the inflammation which might otherwise take place. A Dyak chief informed me that he had been struck down by a Durian falling on his head, which he thought would certainly have caused his death, yet he recovered in a very short time."

Reading that makes walking up Broadway to get a bowl of durian sticky rice seem less risky.

Durian has been referred to as an "acquired taste." This is clearly wrong. I have never known a person who dislikes durian ever to change her mind. I've only known one person who was indifferent to the fruit. (Reader, I married her.) My own first taste of durian, as diluted and cream-frostinged as it was, seemed at the time like a doorway had been opened in my mind.

I've never had fresh durian, and I'm told that fresh durian is to the frozen stuff I've eaten as the frozen stuff I've eaten is to slightly durian-flavored tofu. But I have a jar of durian jam in the old refrigerator - which, come to think of it, I should finish, as I'm certain Becky won't allow it in the new one she just bought - and I'm the only person I know who actually likes the repellent little durian-flavored wafer cookies the Asian stores sell around here, which can empty a banquet hall when opened. I suspect I'll enjoy fresh durian just fine.

Today, as Matthew and I finished lunch, I pretended to dither over dessert. He saw right through me, and besides, he was buying. "I can't imagine," I said, "that lying on my deathbed I'd ever say anything like 'I shouldn't have eaten so much durian.'"

Posted by Chris Clarke at August 23, 2005 05:25 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Have you ever seen the Chinese movie about durian (really about relationships...) I think it is called DurianDurian. Well worth it.

Posted by: beth at August 23, 2005 06:10 PM
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I like durian very much. Durian is widely available here in Vancouver BC. But the best fresh durian I ever had was in Thailand in 1989. All that unpleasant odor disappears once the sweet yellow goo is in your mouth, and all you want is the next bite after that. I also really like jack fruit, it has a strong smell, but perfectly sweet, and rubbery bite to it. Highly recommended if you haven't tried it yet.

Posted by: Hiroshi at August 23, 2005 10:11 PM
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I'm the only person I know who actually likes the repellent little durian-flavored wafer cookies the Asian stores sell around here, which can empty a banquet hall when opened.

*shoots water from nose*

Ah, well. I guess it was time for a new keyboard, anyway.

Posted by: Space Kitty at August 23, 2005 11:02 PM
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I don't get it. I went to that page you linked, to see what a durian looks like (never having so much as heard of durian before your post). It's scary. Everything about it fairly shouts, "Do Not Touch." Which makes "Do Not Eat" clear as day.

I'd sooner suck on a nailgun than go near one of those things. And you say it stinks, too?

Posted by: carpundit at August 24, 2005 05:27 AM
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Wasn't DurianDurian a bad '80s band?

Posted by: KathyR at August 24, 2005 07:53 AM
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From what I understand, the orang-utan will climb the thousand steps for a tase of durian.

Excellent post, Chris, one of your best. I have something to send you by email which recently bounced. Please contact me?

Posted by: Pica at August 24, 2005 09:46 AM
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I just had to check this one out.

As it happens, I needed to go to Chinatown (Toronto) today. Lo and behold, durians everywhere I looked! Mysteriously, the packaged ones were only .99/lb while the fresh ones were $4.59/lb. And I did not imagine them being as heavy as they are.

I don't know if the scent was adulterated by the surrounding fruits, but to me they smelled of rotting apples.

I was too afraid to buy one.

Posted by: SneakySnu at August 24, 2005 01:20 PM
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Actually, you explain it very well. I could taste it as I read this description.

Posted by: Jarrett at August 24, 2005 01:49 PM
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Your post makes me wonder if I should try seeking out a fresh one someday.

My only encounter with durian was as part of some sort of dried "log" -- and the smell was such that I couldn't accept it as food. I had been expecting something more fecal or fetid, but this thing smelled like a natural gas leak. Bleah.

(After accidentally ingesting food once that had been tainted by white gas on a camping trip, the mere thought of gas-flavored food comes close to inducing nausea.)

Posted by: Rana at August 24, 2005 03:45 PM
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Never had the pleasure to come across a durian in real life, but enjoyed a couple of years ago reading the article by David Quammen: "THE GREAT STINKING CLUE In Search of a Fruit Called Durian", which I thoroughly enjoyed, and made me curious about the fruit ... but until now .. unfortunately ... but one never knows! Might be just around the corner! :-)

Posted by: Yubi at August 26, 2005 03:36 AM
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OK, this comment is WAY too late, but I just had to chime in.

A friend and I tried fresh durians in Singapore in August 1990. I ate three bites. The first nearly gagged me, the second was marginally better so I went on to the third, which was worse than the first. My friend's description perfectly captured the taste: "Garbage wrapped in exhaust." We gave our durians to a local man at the fruit stand; he happily snarfed ours plus the one he already had. Yes, durians are not an acquired taste.

Posted by: Charles at September 2, 2005 10:50 AM
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