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Durian: Daring to Eat This Noisome Delicacy
Fruits, Desserts, and Other Sweet Foods
Summer Volume: 2006 Issue: 13(2) page(s): 11, 12, and 38
There is a fruit so smelly it has inspired litigation in Singapore because it is illegal to open one in public. Furthermore, there and in Indonesia, it is forbidden to bring this fruit on public transportation. Still, this delicacy is prized throughout Southeast Asia. It is also reviled by most foreigners because of its aromatic its pungency.
I first read about this fruit in 1990 while perusing Madhur Jaffrey’s Far Eastern Cookery book. I was instantly intrigued by her glowing descriptions of the flavor and texture of durian pulp. Her description was accompanied, however, by a rather snarky comment about Westerners and their inability to come near the fruit. My Western nose smelled a challenge. I vowed I would get past the smell and eat durian, if the opportunity ever presented itself. Suburban Chicago in the early 1990's was not exactly a hotbed of durian enthusiasts, so my quest remained unfulfilled for many years.
Durian, Durio zibethinus, is a tropical fruit native to West Malaysia. It is cultivated all over Southeast Asia and when fully grown can weigh as much as fifteen pounds. This heavy, leathery, spike-covered fruit must be opened with a hatchet.
The only known commercial American cultivars are grown at Hula Brothers, Inc., a tropical fruit company on the Big Island of Hawaii. Their grove of durian trees—-which can reach heights of three hundred feet-—is small; and the Southeast Asian fruit bat that pollinates the tree in its native habitat does not exist in Hawaii.
"The trees are too large to send someone up one to hand pollinate the flowers," says Hula Brothers sales manager Jamie Runnells. "Some type of night moth does the pollinating.” As a result, the fruits tend to come out seedless. This makes it a difficult tree to propagate here." She also advises, "Fortunately, when the fruit ripens, harvesting is easy. We wait for it to fall to the ground."
Easy, perhaps, but dangerous. In Malaysia, death by falling durian is not uncommon during this fruit’s harvest season. No one at Hula Brothers has been hurt, but employees do use caution: "The farm crew is extra careful around this fruit," Runnells says because, "I held an eight pound fruit myself for a newspaper article and [got] a bloody hand as a result."
Descriptions of the infamous durian aroma run the gamut of disgusting, rotten garbage, smelly cheese, moldy onions, stale vomit, civet cats, musk, used surgical swabs, and more. My favorite description likened the consumption of durian to eating a banana flan over an open sewer. Nonetheless, I remained undaunted in my quest. It is fruit, I reasoned, and it grows on trees. How bad could it be?
Forward to January 2002 and I am on Reclamation Street in the Kowloon area of Hong Kong. Strolling with my mother, my husband, and our two little boys, we are in one of Hong Kong’s ubiquitous fruit and vegetable markets, known locally as 'wet' markets.
The market is bustling, but not crowded by Hong Kong standards. Stalls are piled with a colorful array of fruits and vegetables, many of which I have only seen in cookbooks, magazine articles, and on the Food Network. These include rambutan, longan, dragon fruit, and custard apples, among others. As intriguing as they all are, I am on a quest and will not be sidetracked. Come what may, I will find durian—-and someone with a hatchet.
At long last, we spot a pile of these fruits at a small stall near the Jade Market. There, the tiny proprietress sits busily peeling tubers with a stubby paring knife while chatting rapidly in Cantonese with her neighbors. I wait just a few seconds for a break in her conversation when the smell hits me. In the open air it is not strong, but it is distinct, and it definitely resembles rotten chicken. I am momentarily taken aback, but nonetheless determined to rise to the challenge, get past the odor, and try some of the legendary pulp.
With a bit of gesticulating, we catch the eye of the vendor. To our inquiring chopping motions—-meant to ascertain if she would open a fruit for us-—she responds by brandishing a small, machete-shaped cleaver. Mother points at the durian and holds up one finger; then the proprietress selects a sufficiently ripe fruit for us by thumping several with the flat of the cleaver and—bless her heart—-by smelling them closely. Satisfied with her choice, she expertly hacks open the tough, spiky outer shell and peels it back. She reveals the smooth yellow pulp in five neat, faintly waxy-looking packets nestled along the stem. My moment of truth finally comes. Smiling indulgently, she offers me a taste of the pulp on the end of her cleaver; and I am instantly enchanted. The pulp is extremely creamy, with the mouth-feel of a rich mousse or a meringue butter-cream. The taste is similar to banana. As the tiny sample melts away on my tongue, I am eager for more. With my prize boxed up in Styrofoam and wrapped in two plastic bags, we leave the market and hop the subway. Thank goodness we are not in Singapore or Indonesia.
We head back to Tsim Tsa Tsui and my parents’ apartment. There, my mother and I get down to some serious durian eating. Sitting at her kitchen table, I hold one of the five roughly peach-sized sections in my hand and suck the pulp off of the large brown seed. I roll the creaminess around in my mouth, feeling as if I am eating some incredible egg and cream custard-—I can not believe this stuff grows on trees. The predominant flavor may be banana, but with more time to savor, I detect distinct notes of almond and the slightest hint of lemon and apple from the somewhat chewy membrane that surrounds the pulp.
I am surprised to note that the smell recedes to a large degree while eating the pulp. The only hint of the pungency remains to provide an interesting savory, oniony counterpoint to the sweet pulp.
Unfortunately, once my mother and I have eaten our fill, the smell returns in full force. We realize the folly of bringing an open durian inside a diminutive two bedroom apartment. An unopened durian is unpleasant, to be sure, but an opened one is nearly unbearable and utterly pervasive.
My mother and I take care to throw the leftovers away outside, but to no avail. When we return from running errands an hour later, my kids are still plastered against the open windows in an attempt to escape the lingering aroma. It finally does dissipate when we dig into the kitchen garbage, remove the seeds and throw them away outside, as well. Durian is definitely a delicacy that should be savored in the open air.
Despite its off-putting perfume, durian appears to be gaining popularity, even among non-Asians. Runnell says that most who relish the fruit remember eating it in countries where they spent their childhood.
Southeast Asians prize the durian’s creamy pulp. In addition to eating it straight out of the shell, they use it in a wide variety of sweet and savory dishes. These include all manner of jams and candies, ice cream, rice curries, and sweet or salted preserves. The seeds, usually sliced and roasted, are a common snack. The fruit is widely regarded as an aphrodisiac, perhaps because of its tendency to become slightly alcoholic within one or two days of ripening. Possibly, though, what makes the ladies swoon is the manly fortitude it takes to ignore the smell long enough to eat it.
Durian is available in many Asian markets, particularly those that feature foods from China, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. And,it is now widely available in Chinese markets in the United States where you see it defrosting, sitting next to other speciality fruits, and costing a pretty penny. When frozen and in early stages of defrosting, there is little to no distinctive smell. When fully defrosted there is less in the aromatic arena, and more on the creamy side. Do dare to eat it, if you are unfamiliar. Perhaps check out the freezer section to purchase durian ice cream. I recommend doing so as your earliest introduction. It has no aroma, and a wonderful taste.
The recipes that follow are with thanks to friends of the editor, who humbly advise their names need not be included. These are modern Chinese-style adaptations. We were delighted to learn they are loved by Chinese born in one or another country of Southeast Asia, and now used by Chinese in China and elsewhere. Many are purchased in Chinese markets in the United States despite their hefty price.
Incidentally, both recipe donors advise purchasing durian frozen, and in cool weather. They say they keep their windows closed, and cook the fruit soon after removing it from the freezer. One says frozen durian pulp has minimal aroma, but truth be told, she also says she prefers hers fresh. Her friend uses a freezer saw defrosting just the amount needed. She likes the frozen fruit mashed and eaten partially frozen, as an ice-cream-like dessert.
The photographic foursome of durian with this article is from Food Plants of the World by Ben-Erik van Wyk; a book reviewed in this issue of Flavor and Fortune. The solo picture was taken by the editor.
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