DURIAN. The durian is a tropical fruit encased in a spherical or ovoid spiny hard shell, which can be quite large—a single unhusked durian can be the size of a football. Within the shell are five or six segments of golden or cream-colored custardy pulp, the flavor of which is reputed to be so delectable that it is commonly known in Southeast Asia as the "king of fruits." But perhaps even more notable about the durian than its taste is its remarkably foul odor.
Nasal Nightmare or Palate Pleasure?
Sir Stanford Raffles, doughty founder of modern Singapore, proudly told friends in 1819 that whenever he caught a whiff of the fruit, he would "hold his nose and run in the opposite direction." The distinguished nineteenth-century naturalist Henri Mouhot found it relatively easy to trudge boldly through the Cambodian jungles when he discovered Angkor Wat, but give him a durian, and his delicate French olfactory senses would be offended to a point of desperation. "On first tasting it," he reported in his diaries, "I thought it like the flesh of some animal in a state of putrefaction."
What makes the durian both hostile and iconic is the thick rind of the fruit. As cleavers chop through it, an aroma propels upward, inspiring unsavory images: old unwashed socks, subway bathrooms, carrion in custard, fetid cheese. How nearly unimaginable that the taste of this source of nasal distress could evoke such imaginative and savory descriptions as "a bouquet of wild honey with a hint of smoked oak" or "bittersweet butterscotch." But such is indeed its reputation. The flavors of durian varieties range from nutty (the common Thai chunee, or "gibbon" durian) to butter-almond (the maung thong, or "golden pillow" durian) to crème brûlée (the newly crowned king of flavors, daan yao, or "long-stem" durian).
A Cultural Identity
While no festival is devoted to the durian, its Thai devotees crowd the ten-cent ferries from Bangkok to the province of Nonthaburi, where the finest durian grow, from April through July. There, along the port, the laughter of appreciation, the sounds of thick spiky rinds being chopped open, and a pervasively acrid aroma float and mingle together over the Chao Phrya River.
In 2000, Hong Kong filmmaker Fruit Chan wrote and directed Durian Durian, a movie that explores the lower classes of Hong Kong's steamy tenement district of Mongkok. The two durian in the title represent the story's two vulgar, ambitious women, who, like durian the fruit, are repulsive to outsiders but charming to their own society. And, like the Malays (who say "when the durian falls, the sarong falls"), the Chinese consider durian an aphrodisiac.
The durian (which the French dub "cheese-vending tree") is a member of the bombax family (Bombacaceae), a diverse family of trees that includes the thick-trunked baobabs of Africa and Australia, the fast-growing balsas of tropical America, and the kapok-yielding ceibas of Africa and tropical America. The durian (specifically Durio zibenthus ) probably originated in Borneo, and today its numerous varieties are cultivated primarily in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines. The durian tree, resembling the American elm, is of majestic height, reaching up to 120 feet. For its first five years, the trees are delicate, requiring humid climate and protection from fruit borers and leaf-cutters. From its fifth year, it begins to bear approximately forty fruit; by the tenth year, up to 200 fruits. Each of the spiky green fruits can weigh up to eight pounds, so during the harvesting season, it is most inadvisable to walk under a tree, since, upon beginning to ripen, the fruits fall from their lofty branches.
Humans are by no means the only eager consumers of the durian. According to a Thai maxim, "the first to note the malodor is the elephant, which shakes the tree to bring down the fruit. After the elephant noses open the fruit with its tusks, the tiger fights the elephant for the fruit. Rhinoceros, wild pig, deer, tapir, monkey, beetle, and ant follow the tiger. The human must be very quick to get the durian."
Assuming no frugivorous animals have broken the husks, durians are trucked to market, where the durian buyers make their selections. As an iconic fruit, social status is important here, and only the most desperately poor will be satisfied with the lowly chunee. Others will look for the more desirable—and more costly—maung thong pile.
Which are the best in the pile? Some Western writers claim that the odor is the hallmark of a good durian, but in fact the husk is so tough that only a scintilla of the smell can pierce through the young fruit, which takes two or three days to ripen fully after falling. Those experienced in the durian trade know that it is sound, not scent, that identifies an acceptable specimen. The durian merchant will hold the durian by the stem, while the buyer lightly taps on the top of the fruit with a hand or (preferably) a carved teakwood stick. The other hand is held behind the buyer's ear to catch the resonance of the tap, much as a conductor will catch the timbre of violins in an empty auditorium. If the sound from the durian is a thud, the fruit is touching the husk and not ripe enough. If the sound is hollow, then it is overripe and mushy. Something between a thud and hollow, therefore, is ideal.
The export market for durian is limited, since no airline allows the transport of fresh durian (even in the luggage compartment, the aroma can seep up to within sniffing range of the passengers). Nonetheless, the demand
|Durian: Nutritional Information|
|Components||Per 100-gram portion|
|Vitamin B1||0.1 mg|
|Vitamin B2||0.13 mg|
|Vitamin C||23.2 mg|
|source: Ministry of Agriculture Malaysia at www.agrolink.moa.my/comoditi/durian/durian.html|
for this "king of fruits" among Western consumers is on an increase. To be sure, canned durian brought some 30 million dollars in exports in the year 2000, with the United States comprising one-third of this market.
Preparation and Consumption of the Durian
Slicing the durian open with a sharp cleaver offers a dissonance of reactions. The smell is indeed fetid, but the compartments within contain generous servings of pulp that is solid (but not dry) and creamy (but not milky). The fruit can be consumed by hand or spoon, extracting the chestnut-sized seeds embedded in the pulp. Fresh durian pulp can be wrapped in foil and stored in a freezer but inevitably loses its delicate taste.
Different cultures use the durian in a variety of ways. In Borneo, the indigenous Iban boil or salt unripe durian, using it as chutney on their sticky rice. In mainland Malaysia, the seeds are roasted or fried and eaten like popcorn. In Sri Lanka, where durian grows wild, farmers will take durian pulp and mix it with curdled buffalo milk, sugar, and sometimes cinnamon or cloves.
Other variations, like durian jam and candy, are made for those who want a taste of durian without the effort of the aroma. Among the most popular recipes is durian ice cream: chunks of the fresh fruit are blended into a puree, mixed with pineapple or orange syrup, and poured onto the ice cream. Fresh durian is also used for a durian "cake." This Malaysian treat is made with durian pulp and sugar, slowly boiled together and wrapped in palm leaves. These cakes keep up to one year in the freezer. Incidentally, consuming durian, in any form, with liquor is strictly avoided. It is a long-standing belief that fermenting the fruit in the stomach with alcohol can be lethal.
See also China ; Southeast Asia .
Genthe, Henry. "Durian." Smithsonian Magazine (September 1999): pp. 99–104.
Harris, Marilyn Rittenhouse. Tropical Fruit Cookbook. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993.
Rolnick, Harry. "The Durian." Kris: Malaysian Airline Magazine, 1982.
Rolnick, Harry. "The Fruit They Love To Hate." Asian Wall Street Journal, 1981.
Root, Waverley Lewis. Food: An Authoritative and Visual History and Dictionary of the Foods of the World. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.
Stobart, Tom. The Cook's Encyclopedia. New York: Harper and Row, 1981.
Origin of the Durian
In Africa, on the Indian Ocean island of Zanzibar, there grows a stand of durian trees near the site of the former slave market. Two stories account for its origin. One is that Arabs had brought back the durian from Indonesian explorations in the eighteenth century. Another story is that the British colonial governor of the 1850s decided to plant every tropical fruit in this garden, but it was the durian that took root and predominated. The durian is beloved by the Zanzibari (although mainland Tanzanians find it repulsive).
Defending the Durian
It has been said that Asians enjoy pricking the somewhat constrained food preferences of foreigners by offering them durian and watching the knee-jerk negative reactions. Usually the results are harmless and amusing, but sometimes when the untrained nose meets the noisome fruit, the culture clash can be more antagonistic than amicable. Some years ago in Thailand, where durian is a matter of national pride, a Thai lady from Bangkok's red-light district was accused of slashing an American's face with the sharp spines of the durian. Her excuse was that she had been innocently dining on the durian in the back of a bar, when the American stormed in to castigate the revolting smell coming from the fruit. What choice did this woman have but to claim durian rights and defend the fruit? The Thai magistrate, a patriotic durian eater himself, found the assault was, alas, criminal. But in deference to the noble durian, he penalized the woman the equivalent of a mere five dollars and, as if to underscore the virtue of her actions, paid the fine himself.