In which I eat the dreaded durian

Only a lack of time prevents me from writing in extenso about the infamous durian, the fruit that you either hate (the vast majority of humans) or love (the select few).  The pronounced disparity in whether people can stomach the fruit is a mystery to me; perhaps, like the perception of cilantro, it reflects a genetic polymorphism. The highlight of this post (below) is a video, made by Melissa Chen, in which I was “encouraged” to try the fruit, but let me begin with three paragraphs from the long Wikipedia article about it:

The durian (/ˈdjʊriən/) is the fruit of several tree species belonging to the genus Durio. The name “durian” is derived from the Malay-Indonesian languages word for duri or “spike”, a reference to the numerous spike protuberances of the fruit, together with the noun-building suffix -an. There are 30 recognised Durio species, at least nine of which produce edible fruit, and over 300 named varieties in Thailand. Durio zibethinus is the only species available in the international market: all other species are sold only in their local regions. There are hundreds of durian cultivars; many consumers express preferences for specific cultivars, which fetch higher prices in the market.

Regarded by many people in southeast Asia as the “king of fruits”, the durian is distinctive for its large size, strong odour, and formidable thorn-covered husk. The fruit can grow as large as 30 centimetres (12 in) long and 15 centimetres (6 in) in diameter, and it typically weighs one to three kilograms (2 to 7 lb). Its shape ranges from oblong to round, the colour of its husk green to brown, and its flesh pale yellow to red, depending on the species.

Some people regard the durian as having a pleasantly sweet fragrance; others find the aroma overpowering with an unpleasant odour. The smell evokes reactions from deep appreciation to intense disgust, and has been described variously as rotten onions, turpentine, and raw sewage. The persistence of its odour, which may linger for several days, has led to the fruit’s banishment from certain hotels and public transportation in Southeast Asia.

It was always Melissa’s intention, as I stayed at her parents’ house in Singapore, to acquaint me with durian. She herself had tried it many years ago, and abhorred it. But she’s an intrepid woman, and wanted to try it again to see if her tastes might have changed. Her mother, Annie, loves the stuff, but her father Michael is in the “can’t stand it” class. The naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, however, who was headquartered in Singapore for a long time, absolutely loved the fruit; you can read his loving description here.

And so, while i was resting up from my cold, Melissa and her mom ventured into Singapore’s red-light district (prostitution is legal there), which also happens to be the place where one can buy durians. They forked out 80 Singapore dollars (about $58 US!), for one specimen of this fruit, supposedly of the best type.

Me with the pricey fruit:

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We opened the beast to reveal what looks like the thing that came out of that guy’s stomach in the movie Alien:

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Melissa posted the video below on her Facebook page, as well as the following text.

Scores have been written about the durian, which, depending on whether you are wrong or not, is either culinary seppuku or gastronomic heaven.

I wouldn’t let Prof. Jerry Coyne leave Singapore without trying what is known in these woods as the “King of Fruits.” My mom drove to the red light district, picked up a thorny parcel of death for $80 and stashed it in a cooler box in her trunk. In the short 15 min drive home, the entire car stank of skunk fart and rotten flesh. This is why you’ll get fined for bringing one on public transport here.

Alfred Russel Wallace, who played second fiddle to Charles Darwin wrote that “it is in itself perfect. In fact, to eat Durians is a new sensation worth a voyage to the East to experience. … as producing a food of the most exquisite flavour it is unsurpassed.”

While Anthony Bourdain, keen observer of culture and sociology through the lens of food, described the experience as akin to “French-kissing your dead grandmother.”

So, what is Jerry’s verdict? Is he in Camp Wallace or Camp Bourdain?

Melissa also made subtitles for the video. Be sure to watch to the end!

Annie loved it, though, and ate mass quantities, giving it a “thumbs up”. The remainder was carefully (and hermetically) packaged for her relatives:

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After two of the three of us were sickened by our encounter with the durian, we cleansed our palates with a really delicious local fruit, the purple mangosteen (Garcinia mangostana):

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52 Comments

  1. Posted November 5, 2016 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    The casu marzu of fruit!

  2. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted November 5, 2016 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Amazing. The idea of genetic polymorphisms for taste is something that I had not heard of much before, beyond the simple example of whether or not one is a PTC (aka PTU) ‘taster’. I had not considered the possibility that there are also differences in how something tastes.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted November 5, 2016 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

      I’m sure there are many different molecules contributing to the flavor. Presumably there’s one molecule in particular that contributes the noxious component. Either you can taste that component or you can’t.

      • Mark Sturtevant
        Posted November 5, 2016 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

        On the other side of that are the varieties of taste and smell receptor proteins, and I suppose also their relative abundance.

  3. pam
    Posted November 5, 2016 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    I was raised to have excellent table manners. So, when I tell you that DURIAN is the first (and only) food I literally SPAT onto the table…you’ll know how disgusting it is. And orangutans actually like those things! YUCK!

  4. GBJames
    Posted November 5, 2016 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    Regarding the purple mangosteen… is the white part what you eat?

    • Richard Bond
      Posted November 5, 2016 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

      Yes, the white part. It is my favourite fruit, provided it is freshly picked.I have enjoyed it in Bali and Penang, but from an upmarket British supermarket it was pretty dull.

  5. Randall Schenck
    Posted November 5, 2016 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    Wow, I think it took guts to try that. Turpentine, sewage, how can you resist. When it leaves the car smelling really bad, that would be enough for me. Really odd that some people love it. Just a matter of taste, or not.

    • GBJames
      Posted November 5, 2016 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      Maybe like Limburger cheese? (Which I like.)

  6. mordacious1
    Posted November 5, 2016 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Oh, darn. I was hoping that people who hate cilantro, love durian and vice versa.

  7. Rita
    Posted November 5, 2016 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know if I could taste a fruit that not only smells terrible, but whose inside looks like a raw chicken!

  8. bric
    Posted November 5, 2016 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    I’ve eaten it (under duress) in Malaysia, and actually quite enjoyed the eating part; what I couldn’t stand were the eructations that followed. One should definitely travel on public transport after eating durian.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted November 5, 2016 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

      “One should definitely travel on public transport after eating durian.”

      I do hope there was supposed to be a “not” in there. I would prefer to think you’re error-prone rather than sociopathic.
      🙂

      cr

      • Posted November 5, 2016 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

        You’d be sure to get a seat.🙂

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted November 5, 2016 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

          That was (allegedly) Thomas Midgley’s strategy in the year or so before his team discovered the wonderful effects of tetraethyl lead. They were working their way around the bottom-right corner of the periodic table, testing the anti-knock effects of the elements in a for that would dissolve in petrol. They started at iodine, passed through organo-arsenic compounds (not very effective and with a bit of a PR problem), and spent a while working on organo-selenum and organo-tellurium compounds. Then moved on to organo-lead compounds. Why did they move on to finally choose the profoundly dangerous organo-lead compounds? “In the pipeline” has a Nobel endorsement :

          a conversation between Matt Meselson and Linus Pauling:
          LP: Well, Matt, you know about tellurium, the group VI element below selenium in the periodic chart of the elements?
          MM: Uh, yes. Sulfur, selenium, tellurium …
          LP: I know that you know how bad hydrogen sulfide smells. Have you ever smelled hydrogen selenide?
          MM: No, I never have.
          LP: Well, it smells much worse than hydrogen sulfide.
          MM: I see.
          LP: Now, Matt, Hydrogen telluride smells as much worse than hydrogen selenide as hydrogen selenide does compared to hydrogen sulfide.
          MM: Ahh …
          LP: In fact, Matt, some chemists were not careful when working with tellurium compounds, and they acquired a condition known as “tellurium breath.” As a result, they have become isolated from society. Some have even committed suicide.
          MM: Oh.

          Interestingly, one of the commentators there also discusses durian ; but he’s an ursophile not an ailurophile : “JerryBearGreetings! I am a great aficionado of Durian fruit, which is famous for its pungent sulfur compounds. Either they smell unspeakably foul or alluringly savory. In my case, it smells sort of like a well ripened pail of dirty diapers for one to two minutes but then abruptly switches to an alluruing smell like onions fried until brown and crispy. I have noticed overtones of faint skunk and smoked oysters. Most of my friends cant get near it. One says it smells like vomit, another compares it to an open sewer. I buy my Durian fruit from an Oriental market, fresh frozen from Thailand. It has an intensely sweet, intensely aromatic creamy taste with complex savory overtones. It is my favorite fruit and I can see why people in SE Asia go into debt during Durian season. I cannot find any information identifying the sulfur compounds in it though. Maybe somebody here might be tempted and buy some to play with it, I do have some alcoholic extract of Durian fruit which might be more available and easier to analyze. I am not particularly bothered by sulfur compounds, Hydrogen sulfide has an odly appealing cabbagy smell to me and even hydrogen selenide seems more radishy than horrible to me. I have no desire to ever mess with tellurium!”
          Personally, I’m tempted more than ever by the Fruit-of-Variable-Repute.
          I also find it unutterably hilarious that this fruit is only available in the region otherwise known as the “Clappy Valley” and “Seven Floors of Whores”. I can almost imagine the price lists for “special services” involving either the presence or very specific absence of this fruit.

          • Steven Hill
            Posted November 5, 2016 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

            Durian is widely available in Singapore. It’s sold at our local market. Annie presumably went to Geylang, which is famous for its durian sellers as well as its brothels, to buy it. It’s certainly not on sale at Orchard Towers (four floors of whores)!

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted November 6, 2016 at 12:08 am | Permalink

            Yes, the descriptions of the smell of durian reminded me of some of Derek Lowe’s poetic descriptions in ‘In the Pipeline’ of chemical compounds which are either incredibly explosive, lethally poisonous, or unbelieveably smelly (the latter two often go together).

            cr

            • gravelinspector-Aidan
              Posted November 6, 2016 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

              Volunteers to develop incredibly poisonous, highly explosive and intensely regurgatory compound, please queue … over there. No, further over there.

          • Posted November 7, 2016 at 9:00 am | Permalink

            I enjoyed your story, gi-A; thanks!
            Funny how some people don’t like the smell of guava. I suspect that freezing durian calms down some of its potency, much like freezing onions. I think I’ll still give durian a pass. I do love bitter veggies, like mustard greens, arugula, endive and bitter melon, and prefer my fruits to be on the sweet or tangy side.

            • gravelinspector-Aidan
              Posted November 7, 2016 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

              I suspect that freezing durian calms down some of its potency, much like freezing onions.

              SWMBO (She Who etc etc) has a deep hatred of frozen food of any form. Which I suspect is a response to being on the far end of a 5-day railway line, with not too much attention given to cargo temperatures in winter or summer.
              (Personally, no problem with frozen food.)

      • bric
        Posted November 6, 2016 at 10:50 am | Permalink

        Mostly error-prone🙂

  9. darwindad
    Posted November 5, 2016 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Another fruit which affects people or at least our household members taste and smell very differently is the tropical guava or lemon guava. I have a large tree in the back yard (Vista, CA). I think the odor and taste of the fruit is wonderful. Neither my wife or son will even get close to them. My son calls them “stink” guavas. I am not allowed to bring even one of them inside our home (or garage!). I must eat them outside only. Currently they are in season and dozens have fallen on the ground where they give the whole yard a wonderful, pleasant fragrance of the tropics that only I seem to enjoy. We have a large number of fruit trees in the yard including pineapple guava, mango, white sapote, citrus, plum, apricot, peach, pomegranate, and Fuyu persimmon that the whole family enjoys. Weird there is just this one that we so disagree about. Must be some interesting genetic here. Note: I find that cilanto makes a salad inedible. My wife loves it.

  10. rickflick
    Posted November 5, 2016 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    My wife loves it. She says it tastes like creamy mango and blue cheese. She admits it is an acquired taste. Having grown up in Saigon, I think she acquired such a high level of tolerance as a child.
    I smelled it once and refused to allow it near my taste buds lest they be damaged forever.

  11. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted November 5, 2016 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    “That guy” in Alien was none other than John Hurt.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted November 5, 2016 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

      In one of the few scenes where he’s been out-performed by a prop.

  12. Posted November 5, 2016 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    I wonder whether those who like it also like the smell? I guess the answer is no, since why would anyone still bite into it if a whiff was all it needs. Supposedly, those who like lutefisk would also not consider it fragant.

    The experiment also reveals a mental quirk of Jerry: “dead bird” is apparebtly a more prototypical member of “things that are disgusting” to him, as it comes quickly to mind, yet Jerry appears to actually like chicken. I guess similar quirks are common, there is delicious meat on one side, and then there are body parts of animal corpses on the other, both things in a sense “compartementalized”. I guess, English with it’s fancy french-borrowed terms for animals that are on the table (pig—pork) rather encourages such diatinction.

    • Kiwi Dave
      Posted November 5, 2016 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

      I ate durian several times while living in Hong Kong and thought the smell was thoroughly offensive but the taste – a sort of sweet creamy custard – just OK, certainly not worth the smell and no match for mangoes, lychees, mangosteens, jackfruit, pineapple….

      To give an idea of the smell’s strength: my wife bought durian at the market in the morning, ate some, wrapped the rest in plastic bags stored in the fridge and disposed of the husk down the garbage chute; but arriving home after 6.30 pm, I could smell it immediately, sometimes even before I opened the tight-fitting apartment door.

  13. Bill Dickens
    Posted November 5, 2016 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    I’m a big fan of durian. I would probably use words like “caramel icecream”, “honey”, or “coriander” to describe the taste and not turpentine, or onions. Then again I was raised with vegemite and love all the umami foods – whether there any correlation I have no idea.
    I think part of the attraction of a good durian is the texture – like a lot of Chinese food for example – what it feels like to eat is as important as the taste. So I think a good durian will have segments with a slightly firm fibrous outer skin that gives slightly as you bite through, then a creamy filling that floods you with taste. Then finally it should slide smoothly off the seed and finish with a slight firm inner skin against the seed.
    I lived in Hong Kong a large chunk of my life and used to eat them regularly. Most of the durian were from Thailand, while tasting good, weren’t as good as Malaysian durian which is probably what you had in Singapore. When I lived in a lowrise walkup I used to store the fruit on the baloney to avoid spreading the smell through the whole building. Once I moved into a highrise with no outside access I stopped buying the fruit. It’s possible to buy sealed trays of single segments, however, I think the taste is not as good – probably some of the flavor oils and moisture are lost.
    In Malaysia the varieties are highly categorized and they each have very distinctive tastes. I seem to remember XO, D101 as being some favorites. D13 is a good starter durian as the taste is milder.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted November 5, 2016 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

      Vegemite. That explains a lot.
      🙂

      cr

  14. Billy Bl.
    Posted November 5, 2016 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    It was Wallace’s ravings that piqued my interest about the durian, but I don’t hang around big cities where you might be able to find this sort of thing. One day a few years ago, though, I saw some durians in a food store in a mid-sized town, so I bought one (can’t remember the price, but it was nowhere near 58 US$). Unfortunately, it had been frozen and thawed, so it probably didn’t taste like it should. I didn’t particularly like it and didn’t eat all of it, but it wasn’t revolting. I’d still like to try a fresh one.

    • Chukar
      Posted November 5, 2016 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

      Frozen & thawed durian is awful – meaning mostly bland. The good flavors are 99% destroyed by freezing. Durian cake, paste, candy, etc. is also not worth eating. Only the fresh fruit, probably unavailable in the U.S., is worth the price.

      The durian available in Mindanao (southern Philippine Island) is quite mild & inoffensive compared to Malay or Thai fruit.

  15. Chukar
    Posted November 5, 2016 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    In a certain town in northern Malaysia, I became known as “the white guy who likes Durian.” I once ate five at one sitting. They were free. The locals watched as I ate them.

    Until I first ate it, the aroma was repellent, like a very aromatic Limburger cheese or long-unwashed sweaty socks. But upon that first bite, I was transported to heaven. The greatest collage of delicious flavors in the world, beyond the imagination of any mere mortal. Truly the “King of Fruits.”

    Forever after, the smell of durian has been wonderful beyond words.

    If you can tolerate – or like – the smell of a really stinky cheese, you can eat durian. If you can’t abide that smell, forget it.

    But the disgust of the many merely means more durian for we fortunate few, and at a lower cost! So I applaud your disgust and encourage others to never ever try it.

  16. tubby
    Posted November 5, 2016 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    Mangosteens are delightful, but durians.. are, well, something else. Like stewed onion, old gym socks, turpentine, and a corpse were all made into a frightening custard. They smell like a dumpster. I think it’s amazing that people like them.

  17. geckzilla
    Posted November 5, 2016 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    I’ve only ever had little durian-shaped pastries at dim sum. I think the pastries are delightful, and presumably they also contain durian, but I don’t think it has much. Or maybe I love durian and just don’t know it. I don’t think I’ll get a chance to taste it because no one in the family will abide it in the house. Loved the video mini-documentary.

  18. Greg Mills
    Posted November 5, 2016 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    “Skunk fart and rotten flesh…gym socks, turpentine, and a corpse…”

    Um, Ima pass on this one.

    Every thing else I would eat with Dr. Jerry and with more sambal!

  19. Ben
    Posted November 5, 2016 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    The one time I ate durian, I thought it was really good but the odor was pretty rank. The one we tasted had flesh soft enough to spoon out like custard–maybe Jerry’s wasn’t fully ripe? I found it really good and would certainly try it again.

    Mangosteens are good too.

  20. gscott
    Posted November 5, 2016 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    I’ve had durian in Malaysia and Thailand – the smell is much worse than the taste. And you can smell them a long way away. We could always smell a durian stand a quarter mile down the road, well before you could see it.

    (I’ve tried a couple of the Scandinavian fermented fish things – hakarl (Icelandic fermented shark) wasn’t too bad (think blue cheese with a nose of ammonia), but surstromming (Swedish herring) has the vilest odor of anything I’ve eaten. I’ve seen a just-opened can of surstromming cause everyone within 50 yards to get up and move. But with enough onion and a chaser of akvavit, it goes down…)

  21. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted November 5, 2016 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    Since the ‘purpose’ of fruit is to attract animals to eat it and spread the seeds, one wonders just what the durian is trying to attract. Komodo dragons?

    cr

    • pam
      Posted November 5, 2016 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

      Komodo ”dragons” eat rotting, decayed flesh. They’d have no interest in the taste of durian!

      And, by the way, I love cilantro and hate durian. ANYONE with normal taste buds would hate durian.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted November 5, 2016 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

        Yes I know what they eat. I was thinking more of the smell, actually. I have no idea what rotting flesh tastes like, thank Gods…

        cr

  22. Marella
    Posted November 6, 2016 at 1:10 am | Permalink

    I love durian, and I cannot understand why anyone doesn’t! It’s sweet and creamy and delicious. We get them here flown in from Thailand frozen and they certainly don’t cost anything like that. My family complains though, apparently whatever genetics make you like them didn’t get passed on to my kids.

  23. Mike
    Posted November 6, 2016 at 6:07 am | Permalink

    Methinks I’ll forgo the experience.

  24. Ken Kukec
    Posted November 6, 2016 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    “… Anthony Bourdain, keen observer of culture and sociology through the lens of food …”

    I recently visited my bestie, who’s a chef teaching at a culinary school. The school also runs a restaurant and does catering. One day, they were shorthanded so I strapped on my old chef’s apron and worked the line. While there I espied Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential (which I had been meaning to read for some time now) on the school’s library shelf and took it home and read it. The book is not only wonderfully written but also, as Melissa says, chock full of keen cultural and sociological observation. Now I better understand why I’ve always gotten such a kick out of his show Parts Unknown.

  25. Brian Davis
    Posted November 6, 2016 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    I had the misfortune of being on a Singapore to Los Angeles flight on which another passenger brought aboard durian for snacking. My first clue was when I smelled what I thought was vomit. I looked around and saw another passenger who was hunched over in his seat with his face in a ziplock bag. I thought the poor guy was airsick. He repeated this a few times over the next hour. Eventually a flight attendant spotted him (or smelled him). She read him the riot act, and confiscated the bag of what turned out to be cut up durian.

    I’ve never tried eating the fruit. I did accidentally pick up a slice of durian cake from a dessert buffet in Singapore. My impression was that it was like banana bread if someone had vomited into the batter.

  26. Ken Kukec
    Posted November 6, 2016 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    Wait a sec, you ventured into the tenderloin district to partake of the forbidden fruit of … the Durio tree?

    Ok, if you say so, perfesser. (I suppose I’ve heard worse alibis in solicitation cases.)🙂

  27. Posted November 7, 2016 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    Hm! There’s a durian candy I’ve seen around, I wonder what that’s like?

    • pam
      Posted November 7, 2016 at 11:49 am | Permalink

      The candy’s like the fruit…just ghastly. However…if you ever want to ”clear out” an elevator, you could suck on one or two of those little candies and have the ”lift” all to yourself!

  28. Posted November 9, 2016 at 3:57 am | Permalink

    I don’t understand why some people say it smells like vomit, it smells sweet and it tastes yummy to me!😛


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