Durian: The Fruit We Love to Hate

No Durian Sign – Upscale Hotel

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.

No Durian Sign – Subway

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.”

No Durian Sign – Airport

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.)

East Asian Market Day

Yesterday, the rain poured down, sometimes in a light wisp, and at other times in a torrent more like the rains brought by the visitation of Hurricane Ike. What better to do on a rainy Friday than to go shopping, right? But unlike most women, I didn’t head to the local department store or luxury mall. Instead, I went to the local East Asian Market, replenishing ingredients and supplies for our kitchen. When life’s duties or priorities make travel to Asia impossible, a trip to the Asian Market is the next best thing. From fresh Thai basil to black Silkie chickens our market has it all or can get it for you – for a price.

Produce Selection in the Local Asian Market

I love to go there and see the East Asian women – usually in pairs – one young and the other old – plowing through huge boxes of Korean grapes or Fuji apples trying to select the best. A gentle pinch here on the purple and red flesh, a stolen sniff or a taste discerns the juiciest and the most delicious. Everyone is preternaturally polite except when it comes to selecting produce. On occasion, I’ve even witnessed arguments breaking out between mother and daughter when they have disagreed about the ripeness of fruits and the freshness of vegetables.

From purple banana flowers protecting a delicate cream-colored heart, sesame leaves to be made into a hot Korean vegetable dish and lemon lime crunch of lemongrass to the spicy daikon radish used from Central Asia to the Pacific this place has it all.

Friday, I came home with a durian. When I proudly held it up in its string bag to show my husband, he narrowed his eyes and asked, “Why’d you do that?” “I. . . I don’t know. I just did,” I stammered in reply. In truth, I’ve been reading a lot about them on other blogs – from Xander’s wonderful Primitive Culture to Robyn and David’s Eating Asia – and I guess this has made me a bit nostalgic about the smell and the taste of durian.

Durians and Coconuts

It’s interesting; the durian variety I bought – Mornthong – doesn’t smell all that bad. Or rather, it does reek, but you have to get pretty close to it to get a whiff of its gaminess – kind of like my old college roommate. This fruit is clearly not the cultivar that is banned on the Singapore subway or that causes security to search rooms at Malay hotels for the source of the offending odor. Remembering the durians that I had encountered on the Thai peninsula many years ago that smelled like the rotten flesh used to lure wild civets from their forest homes, I did a little research. Turns out that over the past few decades the Thais have been busy creating smell-free, thorn-free varieties of durian. They started with old-fashioned selective breeding, painstakingly crossing over 90 varieties to get the best taste coupled with the least smell. More recently, they have started creating and exploiting genetic maps to pinpoint the genes involved in stink and thorniness.

How very modern of the Thais to take something both extreme and extraordinary and bland it on the altar of globalized commerce. Kind of like the way the large, perpetually green lawns so valued by westerners are a glorification of a captive and controlled nature – a nature devoid of sex and death – so the durian without stink and thorns is but tree-produced vanilla custard. The stink and the thorns are part of the fruit’s charm, or perhaps part of the danger and mystique of eating one. Durians are blamed for the death of people with heart conditions or of people who ingest too much alcohol while eating the fruit, and they are traditionally thought of as an aphrodisiac – hence the smiles and soft giggles shared between couples who’ve scored a good one. For the near-term at least, stink and thorns remain valued durian characteristics in Indonesia and parts of Malaysia – especially amongst older patrons. What I wonder is will the dangerous and desirable characteristics associated with the fruit disappear as well when the smell and the thorns are completely gone?

Colorful Array of Soys and Vinegars

Although the newer cultivars of durians are paler shadows of their forbearers, there are many products available at our East Asian market that are the real deal. From fifty different varieties and brands of soy sauce and tamari, to eight refrigerators full of kim-chee and six flavors of fermented bean curd, this place has a dizzying array of items in a rainbow of packaging colors.

Walking down the brightly lit fluorescent aisles one enters into a symphony of color. ‘Yellow, yellow, orange, red, green, orange,’ starts the chant in my head like in the duet Color and Light from Sunday in the Park with George that extols the virtues of Georges Seurat’s pointillist style. Interestingly, I find that most of the colors of the products in the store lay on the long-wave end of the visible-light spectrum. Everything is red, orange or yellow. Packages adorned with blues, purples and violets are more rare. I wonder if the choice of colors has a physical basis. Are Asians – or perhaps humans in general – more sensitive to these colors because of the shape and size of the rods and cones in our eyes? Or is the preference for these colors more cultural? Since reds, oranges and yellows associated with happiness, joy and other good things in a wide variety of Asian cultures are Asian patrons more likely to buy products packaged in these colors?

The only place in the market where there is a great deal of blue is not surprisingly over at the fish and shellfish market selling live or freshly caught fish and shellfish. Huge tilapia and carp swim in blue-bottom tanks, peering out at the shoppers and examining them as both the fish and the shoppers browse for their next meal. Lobsters, snails, eels, oysters and occasionally scallops appear live in the market and locally caught, live crabs striped red and blue are always available.

Fish Love Shoes!

What is not evident in the few photos of the market that I’ve posted is that the market is patronized by a wide variety of people. Surely Eastern Asians – Koreans, Chinese and Japanese – make up the bulk of the clientele, but there is even variation amongst Asians. Women make up most of the shoppers, and most of them are middle aged householders, or mother-daughter pairs, but there are also a few are young and fashionably dressed women at the market, who tend to shop in the aisles offering heat and eat products instead of in those offering fresh produce. There are couples shopping together, and sometimes Asian men shopping alone as well, but it far more common to see an American man there by himself than his Asian brother.

Just yesterday – an ordinary, rainy Friday morning there were more than Eastern Asians at the market. There were Indians, Iranians, Greeks, Anglos, Africans and a few African Americans, women in Muslim head scarves and a fair number of Latinas at the market as well. What I reveled in was that all of us had come together to buy fresh food, Asian food, food that arose thousands of years ago from the mingling of our cultures on the Silk Road. In coming together at the market we were, in a way, bringing the Silk Road out of history, into the present and breathing new life into it right here at home. (Words and Photos by Laura Kelley)