Either you love them or you hate them – there’s no in-between. Durians are one of those foods. Some people anxiously try to pick the best one and can’t wait to get it home to open it, and others make faces of disgust at the mere mention of the name. For those of you not already divided into one camp or another – the odor of the fruit – which can smell like a cross between smelly athletic socks and rotten meat – puts a lot of people off. The flavor is, by comparison, quite mild, and to me tastes like a cross between vanilla custard and onions not fresh enough to cook with anymore. Since its almost durian season again, a post both extolling and denouncing the flavorful, pungent fruit seemed like a great idea. Because of the odor, the fruit is banned from many public place across Asia, as the,”No Durian”, signs here attest.
The British Naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace noted in describing the sight, smell and taste of a durian: “The five cells are silky-white within, and are filled with a mass of firm, cream-coloured pulp, containing about three seeds each. This pulp is the edible part, and its consistence and flavour are indescribable. A rich custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but there are occasional wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes. Then there is a rich glutinous smoothness in the pulp which nothing else possesses, but which adds to its delicacy. It is neither acid nor sweet nor juicy; yet it wants neither of these qualities, for it is in itself perfect. It produces no nausea or other bad effect, and the more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop. In fact, to eat Durians is a new sensation worth a voyage to the East to experience. … as producing a food of the most exquisite flavour it is unsurpassed.”
The culinary uses in Southeastern Asia and the Indo-Pacific are many. In addition to sweet uses of durian fruit in ice cream, milkshakes, candy, mooncakes, sticky rice and popcorn (yes . . . popcorn), almost all cultures from Thailand to the Moluccas (except for the Philippines) have a savory or spicy use for the durian as well. In parts of Malaysia, durian is cooked with onion and red chili peppers and served as a side dish (not unlike the recipe for pat sataw) vinegar is sometimes added to this; in Indonesia a variety of sambals are made with both fresh and fermented durian, and in Sumatra it lends its distinctive flavor to fish dishes or other curries. Unripe durian is cooked like a vegetable all over the region and the leaves are used as greens. The Malays have both sweet and salty durian preserves, durian honey is a local delicacy in parts of Indonesia and Malaysia, the ash of burnt durian rind is added to some special cakes and blossoms are eaten in many ways – not unlike banana flowers.
So if the fruit and all of its parts are such traditional centerpeices of regional cuisine, why is it banned from so many public places? Is it really just the odor, or is it modernism squeezing out tradition with rules; or western “sensibility” pushing out native customs in the name of progress? I leave you with a poem extolling the sight, taste and aroma of the durian by Malaysian-American poet, Juli Herman:
Cracks upon cracks, riches revealed,
Slivers of gold, treasures concealed,
Grasping fingers prying apart
Doors to rooms, now no longer hidden.
Every room is amply filled with
Golden riches on pure white pith.
Guards of green, prickly menacing,
Litter the field at every inch.
On beds of glossy shiny white,
Soft golden pillows greet your sight.
Nestled close, cradled with love,
Molding in to every curve.
Wafting aroma, strong and bold,
Releasing tales of young and old.
Pungent and putrid, revolting to some,
Yet delectably fragrant — how can that be?
A whiff chock-full of controversy,
Opinions riddled with fallacy.
Banned in places of fancy manners,
Lest it render people unconscious.
A golden treasure now in your hand,
Airy and soft, yet it feels so grand.
Moistness dissolving, lilting the senses.
Flavor so rich, it tastes so divine!
Buttery, custard-like, tastes like heaven,
Alluring appeal intricately woven.
Golden pillow releasing its magic,
Emanating warmth, inside and throughout.
Airiness filled with ultimate richness,
Subtlety bursts with utter creaminess.
Soft yellow flesh promising enchantment.
Leaving you sighing in sheer contentment.
(Words by Laura Kelley; poem, “Durian” by Juli Herman. Photos of No Durian Signs borrowed from Google Images. For more Durian posts on Silk Road Gourmet, see East Asian Market Day from 2008.)