Adventures with Durian: A (Sort-of) Photo Essay

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.

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.

Just imagine a 2kg hand-grenade covered in razor-sharp spikes, and filled with stink and pus. You're just about there...
Just imagine a 2kg hand-grenade covered in razor-sharp spikes, and filled with stink and pus. You’re just about there…

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.

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46 comments Leave a comment

  1. Very interesting! I’ve seen (and smelt!!) durian several times when travelling, but never had the courage to try it. I now wish I had some to hand as I’d love to see which side of the fence I fall!

    Oct. 17 2013 @ 8:19 am
    1. Jackie (Farm Lane Books) author

      I feel the same way about stinky tofu from Taiwan—it smelled horrible BUT I have heard that it tastes better than it smells. Plus, I wish I would now have the added street cred of being able to say that I had tried it!

      Oct. 20 2013 @ 5:03 am
  2. I am so affected by smell. I’ve always had a really strong nose, so I cannot imagine bringing something to my lips that smelled this badly. Good on you guys for trying it out and sharing. 🙂

    Oct. 17 2013 @ 8:58 am
    1. jenn aka the picky girl author

      Yes, durian is a great example of just how much the senses of taste and smell are linked to each other! The initial flavor isn’t so bad, and then you breathe over your palate and it’s all over…

      Oct. 20 2013 @ 5:04 am
  3. Dan and I laughed out loud at your faces eating durian! Loved the way you showed those photos 🙂 I’m a bit embarrassed to say that after all the time we spent in Asia, we never tried durian. We certainly smelled it plenty of times, but we never had anyone to push us into tasting it. And like you said, those spines are just so formidable! Sounds like we didn’t miss too much though 😉 Love love love this post!!

    Oct. 17 2013 @ 9:43 am
    1. Casey @ A Cruising Couple author

      So glad you enjoyed the post! I didn’t find that durian was quite as big a deal in Taiwan so I think you get a pass. If you hadn’t tried stinky tofu though, then we’d have to talk! 😀

      Oct. 20 2013 @ 5:05 am
  4. You two have certainly earned your status as adventurous eaters! There is no way I could ever eat something that smells so bad; I have to hold my breath just walking past the dreaded fruit in the markets in Asia. Love the shot-by-shot reaction photos though – priceless!

    Oct. 17 2013 @ 10:08 am
    1. Amy author

      I think you can definitely tell how strong durian is just by how far away you are from it when you catch the first aromas of it. In Taiwan we didn’t find we could smell it before we saw it, but in Singapore, it could be at the other end of the block and it’s foul odor would assault us!

      Oct. 20 2013 @ 5:06 am
  5. Great story and wonderful photos! That’s the perfect way to document a taste test like this! I just had very ripe jackfruit a few weeks ago, hated it and threw it away. Though it was possibly rotten (does the black mean rotten? We had this debate on Instagram:

    But I really like the kind of savory but sweet jackfruit and durian ice cream I buy here in the Vietnamese markets, so I think I should give the stuff a try when I finally make it to Asia one day. But I agree, there are so many amazing fruit in the world (LOVE soursop!), don’t waste any more time and belly space with ones that are at best okay.

    Oct. 17 2013 @ 11:27 am
    1. Cassie author

      I had tried a durian pastry from the international market back in Nashville before our trips and found it completely fine. In retrospect, I don’t think that pastry had any durian in it whatsoever because there is no way its flavor could have been so masked! I wonder if the ice cream you love might be suffering (or rather, improved!) by the same thing?

      Also, jack fruit should definitely not be black! We vote rotten!

      Oct. 20 2013 @ 5:09 am
  6. This is kind of awesome – I love the photos of you guys trying it for the first time! My face was not so pleasant haha.

    Oct. 17 2013 @ 7:22 pm
    1. Isa author

      Well, I think we have a few pretty horrific faces in those collages… my final photo is not one I’ll be switching to my avatar any time soon! 😉

      Oct. 20 2013 @ 5:10 am
  7. I hate the smell of durian but we were once invited to a birthday party at our favourite coffee shop in Malaysia and they had a hot durian soup as one of the desserts. As odd as it sounds, I tried some and, much like you, was just indifferent to it. I think when it’s diluted with something else, the smell and flavour really aren’t as foul as you first perceive.

    Oct. 18 2013 @ 2:29 am
    1. Julia author

      I would be inclined to agree with you were it not for that durian sorbet: I think it was by far the worst version of the fruit that I tried! Somehow the rancid, oniony flavors were amplified!

      Oct. 20 2013 @ 5:11 am
  8. I absolute adore those photos of you two eating durian, they really tell your impression and final decision about the king of the fruits. Well done for giving it a go 3 times, it was the same for us as you know and the last try we had the durian was a lot creamier and milder for sure, that helped to like it forever! In actual fact we miss it now that we are in Europe, not the smell though, that is unbearable even for us that like durian.

    Oct. 18 2013 @ 7:14 am
    1. Franca author

      I believe you that durian in Thailand is a completely different beast—just from the smell alone you can tell it is a lot milder and less “aggressive”. Since you follow us on Facebook, you know that this wasn’t actually my last time trying durian… but the rest of our readers will simply have to wait for the update here! 😉

      Oct. 20 2013 @ 8:53 am
  9. There is a kind of okay tasting ice lollipop with durian in it, found it in Vietnam. Not too bad! We had soursop juice a few time and it is delicious!!

    Oct. 18 2013 @ 10:37 am
    1. Angela author

      Maybe Vietnamese durian is slightly more mellow and/or less disgusting? You are the second person who has mentioned an appealing Vietnamese durian ice dessert!

      Oct. 20 2013 @ 8:54 am
  10. OMG I can smell it from here! You are braver than I. Hubby loved it, but my overactive gag reflex kept me from trying it. Though if it came down to a bowl of durian or stinky tofu, I’d gobble that durian down!

    Oct. 18 2013 @ 8:12 pm
    1. Heather author

      We haven’t tried stinky tofu yet so we can’t comment on which we’d prefer, but I’d say the two smell equally bad so I have a feeling that contest would be too close to call!

      Oct. 20 2013 @ 8:55 am
  11. So, when I was in Iceland this summer, I was faced with the conquest of trying fermented shark. I COULDN’T DO IT. My boyfriend went for it, god he’s a hero. I don’t even want to describe what it smelled like because that description is not PG13 rated. I will leave it there.

    Oct. 19 2013 @ 10:22 pm
    1. Colleen Brynn author

      Hmmmm… I suspect fermented shark might be one of the few foods on the planet that is actually worse than durian! I have not had the “pleasure” of trying that one yet, but I do know a few others who tried it and confirmed your assessment that it is revolting.

      Oct. 20 2013 @ 8:56 am
  12. Sounds… interesting. I haven’t run into durian in Korea, but maybe I haven’t been looking. Maybe that’s also for the best, haha!

    Oct. 20 2013 @ 9:23 pm
    1. Sally author

      I have found that durian is definitely more popular in certain countries than others, so it may not be as big of a deal in Korea as it is in other places. Consider yourself lucky! 😀

      Oct. 22 2013 @ 9:57 am
  13. Love the photos of your facial expressions! I actually quite like durian. Josh is indifferent to it. The worst thing I ever ate was snake. It was truly foul. Cow intestines with digested grass still inside are a close second.

    Oct. 20 2013 @ 9:53 pm
    1. Bonnie

      Wait, I just thought of another horrible thing I ate. Papeda, which is a version of sago in the lowlands of Papua. It was like eating dirty glue. *gag*

      Oct. 20 2013 @ 9:55 pm
      1. Bonnie author

        Have you only tried durian in Thailand? Because while it’s still got that characteristic durian funk to it, we’ve noted that it is WAY less intense as compared to Singapore/Malaysian durian.

        Sounds like you’ve definitely tried your fair share of extreme edibles! Not sure which of the three you’ve mentioned sounds the least palatable, but durian does seem a bit more benign in comparison!

        Oct. 22 2013 @ 10:05 am
  14. Ha!Ha!Ha! So so love your photo series! I’m with you. There’s way too many enjoyable, delicious food in the world to to even contemplate trying stinky durian. Have you tried jackfruit? It looks very similar to durian on the outside – green and spiky — but it’s so sweet and fragrant and so delicious.

    Oct. 22 2013 @ 10:20 pm
    1. Marisol@TravelingSolemates author

      We have tried jackfruit & had mixed results—sometimes it’s been really lovely, but I think we’ve had a few underripe experiences that were just kind of “meh”. Definitely better than durian though! 😀

      Oct. 24 2013 @ 5:22 am
  15. hilarious! I will never forget my first date with Durian, needless to say, I haven’t called him for a second! So gross!

    Oct. 23 2013 @ 12:54 pm
    1. em author

      He definitely doesn’t make a great first impression, that’s for sure!

      Oct. 23 2013 @ 11:24 pm
  16. Super sharp photos! Love them! Durian is one of those foods that smell much worse than what they taste. Como to think about it I can’t recall another one that stinks as much as durian though!

    Oct. 24 2013 @ 11:53 am
    1. Federico author

      I would agree that it is hard to think of anything that smells worse than durian, BUT I would also say that I can’t think of much else that tastes worse either! I think as to whether it smells or tastes more terrible, that’s a bit too close to call!

      Oct. 24 2013 @ 11:13 pm
  17. yeah….I don’t think I could convince myself to take a bite! lol

    Oct. 25 2013 @ 5:09 pm
    1. Jeska author

      I guess we subscribe to the “try everything once” philosophy. If it’s gross, well, at least you know! And sometimes things seem like they will be terrible in principle but aren’t so bad in practice. Durian is not one of those things! (But at least we know! :D)

      Oct. 25 2013 @ 10:57 pm
  18. I ate a durian pillow (a deceptively innocently named dessert) in Hong Kong and was burping stinky toe-smelly Durian burps for the next 24 hours. Did you try the jack fruit? What did you think? It’s preferable to durian, no?

    Oct. 30 2013 @ 10:03 pm
    1. Colleen author

      Durian burps?!? The horror!

      We did try jack fruit and are also kind of confused by it because it tastes slightly different every time we try it. It’s definitely an aggressively flavored fruit as well, which makes it kind of difficult to deal with at times, BUT it’s definitely way less funky than durian.

      Dec. 28 2013 @ 7:41 am
  19. I love this post and your writing! Many people have asked me why Malaysians and other Southeast Asians love durian so much. I always tell them that the smell like a force field shield that repels you, but if you know how to get past, you’ll be able to enjoy that sweet, creamy durian flesh. But you’re right, the stronger tasting “species” could be a put off to newbies, something I never thought about. Glad you had a chance to try, and survived!

    Nov. 20 2013 @ 10:22 pm
    1. Ming author

      Ha! Thanks for sharing your force-field theory, Ming. I’m not sure whether it was a blessing or a curse for us to have tried the strong Malaysian version first… I’ve since tried durian in Thailand and it is MUCH milder and way less offputting. I secretly don’t mind Thai durian at all, so maybe if I eat it enough I’ll be able to handle the big league stuff in Singapore the next time I’m back!

      Dec. 28 2013 @ 7:44 am
  20. Katherrine E Bland

    I think we can say we gave the King of Fruits a fair shot. Amazing

    Jan. 23 2014 @ 5:34 am
  21. A Malaysian traveler’s right of passage, tasting durian. I brought some Durian flavored snacks back so my students could try them. Opening the package brought me right back to Asia. That odor escaped! The kids all tried it, and most of them liked it. Surprise!

    Feb. 1 2014 @ 1:33 am
    1. Corinne author

      I’m not sure that this would have been a right of passage for us if not for our friends who were adamant we give it a try! 😉 We’ve since foisted it on other travelers (like my parents), but we were much kinder and had them try Thai durian which is far milder and far less noxious. Very surprised to hear that most of your students enjoyed the durian. You must have an army of adventurous eaters in the making!

      Feb. 3 2014 @ 2:56 am
  22. David B.

    Heh… You might find this hard to believe but I love that funky oniony (or even better yet, the bitter garlicky) aspect of durian. It tends to come on after all the sweet flavors (themselves a sequence of flavors that come on one after another) and it’s as if it resets my palate so the next bite or sip (I love durian smoothies) tastes extra sweet again. It’s not bad or rotten to me, just duriany/funky/oniony, something I can’t get out of my mind and which makes me want to eat durian again and again. But not each durian has that aspect: one of the things about durian is that different samples of even the same variety can taste quite different.

    May. 4 2014 @ 12:19 am
    1. David B. author

      I think the thing I like best about durian is the custardy texture of it… but I could definitely due without the “rotting” flavors! I definitely agree, however, that there’s a huge amount of variability in durian, and by far the “strands” we encountered in Malaysia/Singapore were the strongest/most potent. We can actually eat durian in Thailand no problem, it’s much milder. Haven’t tried it in other SEA countries, but based on smell, I’d also wager it’s not nearly as aggressive in Vietnam, Cambodia, or Laos. I keep meaning to try it to find out for sure, but there are just so many other fruits that I like so much better, I never get around to it!

      May. 5 2014 @ 9:20 pm
  23. Ahahaha, this is the best thing I’ve ever read! It had me cracking up the whole way through. I’ve heard durian described as tasting like garbage but the mixture of garbage and moldy onions has me dry heaving at the thought. I am now officially scared of trying durian. In homage to you I might have to take a series of photos to capture my first durian tasting. Those photos are hilarious. I love your expression in the last one!

    Sep. 3 2014 @ 11:35 pm

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