Durian: In The Court of the Yellow King – of Fruits [BIMT3]

May 5, 2009 at 2:31 pm

We’d just finished a hearty dinner on Jalan Alor when I was confronted with one of Malaysia’s most dangerous inhabitants: the durian.

Yes - people eat this.

Yes - People eat this.

Some quick history: durians aren’t just one of the most popular foods found in Malaysia, they’re a cultural landmark. The infamous pungent smell of the durian has caused many hotels and airlines to ban the fruit, but the indescribably intense and complex flavour of its flesh has earned it a fanatical following. There are countless varieties which connoisseurs seek out for particular subtleties in flavour. It’s been hailed as an aphrodisiac. Arguments about what food and drink it should be accompanied with have been bandied about for centuries. Also, it’s one of the few fruits that’s been known to kill. Often weighing up to three kilograms and protected by thick,inch long spikes which can easily draw blood, taking a blow from a durian dropping from the top of a 30 meter-tall tree will MESS YOU UP.

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The legend of the durian has spread well beyond its South-East Asian home. Friends of mine in Vancouver have dared each other to eat durian flavoured bubble tea and biscuits, the smell and taste of which was often enough to prompt gagging, but none had ever worked up the courage to tackle the real deal: the “King Of Fruits” itself. Sarah was insisting that some durian would be a great dessert to follow up our dinner on Jalan Alor, and I wasn’t about to back down. What else did I come here for if not to dream the inconceivable dream, walk the impassable road, and eat the inedible fruit?

Beneath the spiky husk...

Beneath the spiky husk...

Sarah found a vendor’s cart full of nothing but the spiny, pineapple-sized fruits, and selected one. The aroma hanging around the cart wasn’t quite as all-pervasive as I’d been led to believe, but there was no getting around it: durian stinks. The vendor hacked away the spiny armor with an axe head, cracked open the fruit, and we sat down to eat. I took a whiff of the large, creamy-yellow segment I’d picked out and was assailed by more aromas than I could count. There was a fruity sweetness that smelled…wrong, somehow, but there were also hints of onions, bananas…I began to feel like a wine taster wafting a chablis that had been magically transported from another dimension populated by wines beyond the scope of human comprehension. I steeled my nerves and popped the whole segment into my mouth.



Watch Bruce eat the durian and read more about the King of Fruits here!

In retrospect, I think my mistake was opting for such a large piece. With the large seed smack in the middle of the thing, there was no way I could properly chew through it. Instead, I was left helpless as the durian attacked my tastebuds with everything it had, which, it turns out, is quite an impressive arsenal. More than anything, I was instantly overcome with the strength and power of the flavour, rather than the specific taste itself. I’ve never eaten anything that was so unapologetically strong. Tasting durian’s a little like being mauled by a bear: the bear’s certainly not going to give you any account of what it did or why, and so it’s up to you, in your battered condition, to try to piece the story together.

The initial pungent, onion-like aroma was definitely present in the taste, and for a moment overshadowed everything. But then, the horde of sweeter and more layered flavours nestled in the soft durian flesh rushed to the front. Berries, caramel, banana, buttered popcorn and roasted nuts all swirled together in a custard-like texture, while the underlying bitterness still remained. What had to be the strangest aspect of the whole experience was how quickly my initial revulsion gave way to intrigue: my curiosity had been piqued and I needed to go back for more to explore specific flavours I’d missed on the first go ’round. I quickly realised how one could come to appreciate durian in the way one does wine or scotch, always trying different varieties and seeking out particular notes.

I was quite frankly exhausted (and perhaps a little violated) after my first time with a durian. Sarah explained that this was due to the “heatiness” of the fruit. Categorizing foods as having a “heating” or “cooling” effect on the body is common in Malaysia, and it’s customary to follow up the heaty “King Of Fruits” with the cooling “Queen Of Fruits”: the mangosteen. Ian had talked the mangosteen up to ridiculous heights before our trip, generating an image in my head of some sort of super-deluxe space-peach which would not only put to rest all of my fears about the fate of the world, but would also do my taxes. In short, expectations were high…

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4 Responses

  1. Angel says:

    Haha.. How’s the smell. It is good when we taste it. Very memorable for me.

  2. Bruce L. says:

    I wasn’t that nuts about the smell, but like I said the taste grew on me. Would definitely like to try it again…although I’d probably take smaller bites next time!

  3. [...] my life and death encounter with a durian, I was ready for something significantly less confrontational to eat.  Ian and Sarah agreed that a [...]

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