In many ways, this post has been a long time in the making. On my original list of adventures, it was mentioned. It came up again when I tried mangosteen. Reaching further back, I remember reading about a fruit so pungent, so terrible, that was banned on public transit, yet its devotees consider it the food of the gods all the way back in 2002 (in Lynda Barry’s amazing book, One Hundred Demons. Lynda’s grandma describes it as something that “smells so badly, but tastes so goodly.”). I was intrigued by the possibility of a food whose scent belies its flavor. I’m talking, of course, about the one and only King of Fruits – the durian.
For the uninitiated among you, this is a fruit with a serious reputation. Native to Southeast Asia, it resembles some sort of primitive sea creature that has washed up on shore – about as big as a basketball, yellowy-brown, and covered in thorns:
(Those thorns actually come into play, later)
They typically weigh 2-7 pounds, and some of the trees are so tall that they can only be collected after falling to the ground (and believe me, you do not want to be standing under it when that happens). In all respects, this is a formidable looking fruit. However, the terrifying power of the durian is not in its looks. It’s in the smell.
Reports of its odor vary, from turpentine to onions to almonds to excrement. TV personality Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods loathes the thing – it is one of the few foods he’s spit out on his show. Anthony Bourdain, on the other hand, loves it – though he describes the after-effect as having breath that smells “as if you were French-kissing your dead grandmother.” This was the fruit that just this past Sunday I purchased at my local Asian market and to which I subjected my friends.
To be fair, they volunteered! We gathered in the backyard for the tasting, along with several other goodies that I will discuss in upcoming posts. Still, the king was the focal point of our afternoon, and we got right now to business. I printed some helpful instructions on how to open the beast, since the spiky horror looked like it was going to be challenging, and convinced Mr. Menace to do the honors. The knife went in with surprising ease – it turns out that beneath all of the spines, the hull was more pliable than it appeared. The flesh within was revealed, and we all recoiled instinctively, prepared for the stench.
Tentatively, we sniffed the air. There was a faint odor of…nothing. No terrible smell. What were all of these people going on about? We got a bit closer…maybe a the barest hint of turpentine, maybe a touch of overripe fruit, but hardly anything to get worked up about. Mr. Menace turned back to his work at the grill and I set about freeing the pods from the shell.
Here at last there was a tiny bit of drama, because while it still didn’t smell all that much, the devil fruit DID manage to fight back a bit – those spines are really sharp! While prying out the pods I noticed a red smear on my finger, and was temporarily puzzled, thinking about what was at all red inside the durian. It turns out that it was nothing inside the durian – it’s red inside of ME. The sucker bit me! My fingers are now covered in this little pinpricks:
They were extremely soft and custardy. My dining companions compared them to runny eggs, pudding, or alien young. The spent husks looked vile, coated as they were in fruit slime:
Finally, after all this ballyhoo we put the fruit in our mouths. The taste was extremely sweet, practically a sugar overload. Some folks compared it to honeydew melon. There was a sort of pineapple tinge, and at certain points a definite almond flavor. Nothing too offensive until it was finished, when there was indeed a faint aftertaste of onions. This was unevenly distributed throughout the fruit, however. No one hated it! Even our friend Gary, a notoriously picky eater, gave it the thumbs up!
In the final estimate of whether I’m in the Bourdain or Zimmern camp, love it or loathe it, I have to come squarely in the middle. Ultimately it wasn’t the faint hint of onions that bothered me; it was the texture. The durian is soft, vaguely gelatinous, dare I say it? SQUISHY. While I’ve come a long way in my fear of slimy foods, I’m not sure I could just snack on this – I could see enjoying it cooked into something, but not so much au naturel.
In the end, after all the hype, there was a slight feeling of anticlimax. Some quick research suggests that we were eating Thai durian, which is known for its sweetness and relatively mild odor. I guess we’ll need a trip to Malaysia to experience the fruit king in all of his stinky glory. In the words of Levar Burton, however, you don’t have to take my word for it! Two of my esteemed guests have already given their thoughts:
Thanks to all of my fellow food adventurers for making this a party! Special thanks to Mr. Menace, who encouraged me to do a bit more than “go to a field, eat fruit.” I’ll be posting about some of our other snacks later this week.
Look out, also, for a very special post – Adventures in Food’s first ever guest blog! Good friend “Easy Bake” and her beau, “Lt. Funyuns” went on an amazing, food-filled trip and EB has graciously blogged the tale. I guarantee that once you read it, you’ll be hungry.