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Stories | Monita Roughsedge

Delectably Disgusting

Durian: The World's Most Disputed Fruit

It’s mid August and sadly, we’re not in South East Asia. Stuck at home in Australia, waiting as patiently as possible for the virus to end, we’re a little disappointed that we’re missing this year’s durian season. Durians are a must try taste sensation for every foodie-traveler. But be prepared, they’re not like anything you’ve ever tasted before!

The next time you find yourself wandering through a local market in South East Asia and you come across an unfamiliar odour that shocks your senses, permeates your nostrils and makes you gag, it’s most likely that highly controversial, super stinky, spiky skinned fruit, the durian.

Weighing in at between 1-3 kilos and shaped a bit like a football, this weird looking, dangerously thorny fruit houses pod like rows of large seeds that are incased in a creamy textured flesh, ranging in colour from the palest yellow to an orangey-red. But its appearance alone is not what makes this fruit unique.

The most totally loved and completely hated fruit in the world; once you’ve experienced durian there’s rarely a middle ground – you either can’t get enough of it or you never want that disgusting thing near you again!

It’s the smell that does it. Pungent and all encompassing, the odour of durian seriously overpowers every other scent around; and that’s before you even cut it open! If there’s a durian seller nearby, you’ll know it; you can pick up the scent from 100 meters away. Oh, and it lingers and lingers. Pop a whole durian in the boot of your car, take it out 10 minutes later and we promise, your car will smell like durian for the next 3 days! The smell is so overpowering and enduring, simply carrying a durian into a hotel or onto public transport is now banned in many countries, in Singapore it can set you back $500.00!

But its highly aromatic nature wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the smell of a ripe durian was akin to freshly picked jasmine flowers or a just baked chocolate cake but sadly, these are not the smells that come to mind when trying to explain the heady aroma of a durian. Richard Stirling, the American food and travel writer says, “its odour is best described as pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock.” Yum. Others have compared its scent to a civet cat, skunk spray and a sewer full of rotting pineapples…. Are you salivating yet?

So by those accounts, this crazy fruit should be detested by all, right? Well, it’s not quite as simple as that. The late, great celebrity chef and travel documentarian, Anthony Bourdain said, after eating durian, “Your breath will smell as if you’d been French-kissing your dead grandmother.” But apparently, he loved the stuff! Seriously. It’s a very complicated fruit.

When tasting the fruit in 1859, the French Naturalist, Henri Mouhot, described his durian experience as such, “On first tasting it, I thought it like the flesh of some animal in a state of putrefaction, but after four or five trials I found the aroma exquisite.”

So maybe they take a little getting used to, and as strange as it might seem, there are many people out there who just love them! To durian fans the smell is not offensive at all and the taste mmmmhmmmm… it’s been described as mildly sweet, almondy and very creamy, not unlike a rich cheesecake, with overtones of hazelnut, apricot, caramelised banana and egg custard – with a bit of garlic thrown in!

Native to the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, durian is now grown throughout South East Asia, with Thailand being the greatest commercial producer and exporter. In fact, if you’re heading to Thailand in May, you won’t want to miss the annual Chanthaburi World Durian Festival where, amongst a world of durian-ness, you can participate in durian eating competitions! Not for the faint hearted.

Taking between 7-10 years to mature, the trees grow to around 25-50 meters high with one or two fruiting seasons per year, depending upon the species, of which there are around 30. And if you’re in to durian, then there’s a good chance you’ll know most of them. Durian devotees hunt down their favourite variety with conviction! Durian loving families in Singapore pre-order their preferred crop a year in advance, driving across the border to Malaysia to collect their treasures at harvesting time.

A bit like wine connoisseurs, if you’re in the company of durian gourmands, don’t be surprise to find intense discussions about the particular buttery texture of this fruit or the slight citrusy aroma of that one – these people take durian very seriously!

Throughout South East Asia, the love of this bizarre fruit is growing steadily. You can now get durian biscuits, durian cakes, durian ice-cream and milkshakes, durian chocolate, durian chips. You can even get pure durian juice! We recommend a toothbrush after drinking it…

The favourite fruit of the orang-utans (they eat them whole – skins, seeds, the lot!) durian are said to be one of the most nutritious fruits in the world! Rich in iron, Vitamin C, B6, potassium, manganese, thiamine and dietary fibre. It’s said they improve muscle strength, skin health, reduce cholesterol and lower blood sugars. But you need to be careful how much you eat. According to traditional beliefs, durians belong to the ‘Yang’ food group, meaning they’re a ‘hot’ food, producing hot or warm energy.Too much durian is said to make you sweat profusely and will apparently make you nauseas if consumed with alcohol. To counteract this, it’s important to eat durian with a ‘Yin’ fruit, such as Mangosteen, which has a cooling effect on the body thus, balancing out the heat from the durian. This may sound complicated but actually, they do taste amazing together!

So next time you’re in a South East Asian market and you think you smell something dying, follow your nose to the durian stand and give it a go. You’ll either love it or hate it – either way, you’ll remember the experience forever!

And for a bit of a laugh, check out what the cat consensus is on durian in this short Youtube clip. It’s pretty funny!