There comes a time during every traveler’s foray through Asia when one is eventually confronted with Durian. Travel through this continent for any length of time and sooner or later, you’ll turn a corner and smell something so fetid and foul it will nearly knock you off your feet. You get used to the assault on the senses (particularly olfactory) that travel in Asia provides, but the odor that wafts about when durian is in the vicinity must surely be considered a crime against humanity.
The dank aroma of decomposition that emanates from durian seems like it should be a sign from nature that this is something best not eaten. Surely the smell alone is a warning that this is the Pandora’s box of the fruit world, containing only great evil inside. And yet just like the funkiest of French cheeses, someone at some point decided he had to sate idle curiosity and know what death tasted like. Maybe it was a dare? I mean, ripe durians don’t just smell, well, ripe, but, covered in spines and doing their best impression of a porcupine, they’re pretty formidable to behold (and actually hold). Who ever was the first person to crack open a durian and feast on its innards was either incredibly brave or incredibly foolish. Just catch a whiff of it and you won’t believe that anyone in his or her right mind would elect to ingest this stuff without some kind of external coercion.
In our case, we weren’t dared into trying durian though we certainly didn’t throw ourselves in its path. Our pushers came in the form of our friends Chris & Peiyan, whose eyes positively lit up with glee when they realized they had unsuspecting victims to foist the King of Fruits upon. With a few exceptions, we have a policy of trying everything at least once before deciding whether we like it or not, so even though durian smelled inedible, we agreed to suck it up (pun intended?) and try it.
Fool Us Once, Shame On You…
To lessen the stress and trauma of our first dance with the devil, veteran durian-eater, Peiyan, decided that we should not try pure, undiluted durian, but should ease ourselves into it by trying a pastry stuffed with custard that had been laced with durian.
Though I was vociferously warned not to, I hesitantly raised the pastry to my noise and gave it a delicate sniff before opening my mouth. The smell was not nearly as rancid or as overpowering as I had been led to believe (it was certainly miles ahead of the “fermented dog food” stench of Taiwan’s stinky tofu), but how did it taste?
Weird! Though the durian flavor was certainly subtle, durian is kind of like banana in the respect that a little bit goes a long way and can contaminate whatever it’s in, even if the amounts are miniscule. I personally found the durian-infused custard to be more savory than sweet, and not altogether appalling. However, I couldn’t really argue with Tony’s description in which he likened durian to taking a ripe jackfruit, sticking it in a smelly old sock, and then swinging it over a pile of moldy onions.
Fool Us Twice, Shame on Us!
Our first experience with durian was perhaps a bit anti-climactic. Everything I had read suggested that durian was polarizing, there was no middle ground: you either loved it or loathed it. But to be quite honest, at least in custard form, I found myself neither repelled nor intrigued by durian, but rather, indifferent. Although I could see how some would find durian off-putting, I didn’t think it was nearly as bad as I had feared. But, I also didn’t see how anyone could be utterly enamored with the fruit either.
Perhaps emboldened by a rather unremarkable first encounter (which was about as good as I could have hoped), I started to think that maybe durian wasn’t the spawn of Satan as so many before us had claimed. Feeling cocky, I didn’t wait for durian to come a knockin’ a second time—instead, I recklessly sought it out the next time we were inside one of Singapore’s infamous hawker centers (read: the next day).
Wanting to finish our meal off with something sweet, I was hemming and hawing over the various dessert options on offer at one of the stalls when Tony jokingly asked why I didn’t just order the hodge podge sundae dessert that involved a dollop of durian sorbet. Never one to back down from a perceived challenge, I clenched my jaw and impulsively gave my order.
Along with the durian ice cream, my dessert was liberally sprinkled with bits of grass jelly and red beans. But who cares about any of that, because with my first bite, my palate was obliterated by the rank aroma of rotting onions. Every time I exhaled through my nose the flavor flitted back over my tongue and I could taste nothing else. Any sweetness of the sorbet was completely masked by the potent flavors of the durian. I know that some people talk about how delightful bacon or even garlic ice cream can be, but this was just way too strong and was honestly more like dumping garlic and onions onto your ice cream. It was strange and, more importantly, really unpleasant. I nibbled as many of the fruit jellies as I could, but most of the dessert melted into a noxious slurry and was left unfinished.
Three Strikes & You’re Out (?)
Never ones to be deterred, Chris & Peiyan were both determined that before we could write off durian for good, we needed to try the real deal. I will never forget the look of dread that darkened Tony’s face the night we came in from a busy day of sightseeing to find two durians awaiting us on the dining room table. Alas, I did not have a camera handy at that moment, however when it came time to actually dig into these two beasts, I was ready!
And really, I think these photos say it all with regards to how Tony felt about the experience:
Turnabout is fair play, so he returned the favor when it was my turn to step up to the plate:
And just for funsies, here are pictures of Chris & Peiyan who were clearly the real winners of the evening:
There have been bold claims on this blog that if you can somehow manage to make yourself try durian three times, that the third time is a charm. Suddenly you can push past the funky onion undertones and appreciate the creamy, floral notes that are also part of the durian package.
I will say this: our third tango with durian pushed me back from thinking it was gnarly and nauseating, to feeling indifferent about it once again. Tony, on the other hand, hated every bite of this durian as much as he ever did, and I think this did push him fully over the edge into resolutely disliking it forever more. Interestingly, although the two durians we sampled from were the same “strain” (they have these really funny names like “D24” and “XO” which make it sound like they’re bio-weapons being developed in a lab, which… maybe they are) the two tasted rather different from each other. The one that Tony first sampled from was a lot more aggressive and “typically durian” in its flavor, whereas I tried the other one first and found it a lot creamier and milder. So, maybe that explains why I wasn’t as revolted and offended by the durian as he was. Or maybe I have a dead palate and can better tolerate rotten foodstuffs: once I ate an entire bowl of cereal before Tony pointed out to me that the milk that I described as having a “mildly burning flavor” was clearly spoiled.
Regardless, with me still feeling ambivalent about durian, questioning why it exists and why people would eat it when there are so many unequivocally delicious fruits that are far less complicated to enjoy, and with Tony now naming durian the worst fruit on the planet, we draw our adventures in durian tasting to a close. I won’t say I’ll never try it again some day (after all, never is a very long time), but having tried it in three different forms, I think we can say we gave the King of Fruits a fair shot. But if it’s all the same to you, we’ll pay court to the terribly-named-but-delicious-nonetheless Soursop instead.