Doing the Durian

Our gorgeous specimen
Our gorgeous specimen

Ah, Durian. “King of Fruits”, bringer of funk, super-scary crazy fruit. At once creamy, smelly, sweet, delicious and gross all in one. Durian is to Malaysia what Tea is to Brits, or what BBQ is to the Deep South – it goes beyond foodstuff and into the backbone of culture.

So what’s it like, Lewishambles?” I hear you cry. Well, I’m afraid the answer isn’t quite so simple. The famous naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (contemporary of Darwin, scientific adventurer, proponent of evolution and discoverer of flying frogs – I know, cool right?) had this to say about them:

 “The Durian grows on a large and lofty forest-tree, something resembling an Elm in character, but with a more smooth and scaly bark. The fruit is round or slightly oval, about the size of a small melon, of a green colour, and covered with strong spines, the bases of which [[p. 229]] touch each other, and are consequently somewhat hexagonal, while the points are very strong and sharp. It is so completely armed that if the stalk is broken off it is a difficult matter to lift one from the ground. The outer rind is so thick and tough that from whatever height it may fall it is never broken. From the base to the apex five very faint lines may be traced, over which the spines somewhat curve and approximate; these are the sutures of the carpels, and show where the fruit may be opened with a heavy knife and a strong hand. 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 eatable 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.

    The smell of the ripe fruit is certainly at first disagreeable, though less so when it has newly fallen from the tree; for the moment it is ripe it falls of itself, and the only way to eat Durians in perfection is to get them as they fall. It would perhaps not be correct to say that the Durian is the best of all fruits, because it cannot supply the place of subacid juicy fruits such as the orange, grape, mango, and mangosteen, whose refreshing and cooling qualities are so grateful; but as producing a food of the most exquisite flavour it is unsurpassed. If I had to fix on two only as representing the perfection of the two classes, I should certainly choose the Durian and the Orange as the king and queen of fruits.”

Taken from  a letter to Sir William Jackson Hooker; printed in Volume 8 of Hooker’s Journal of Botany in 1856

That said, it’s fair to say not everyone feels the same.

This video, which has some poor suckers eating some really old-looking boxed stuff, gets even worse:

But that’s largely because they had to eat chicken feet too. So.

So far, so mixed. And it’s fair to say that Durian itself gets a really mixed press. So many people have asked me about what Durian is like, that I’ve attempted to set this down to give a kind of impression of how I found it on my most recent trip.

Enough preamble – what’s the 411? Essentially, the flavour is a creamy mango-banana with top notes of bitter almond, but undeniably funky. Sort of a hint of bin-juice rotten blue cheese flavour, but (incredibly) it’s not unpleasant, just strange. I’d say that it’s best to eat your Durian as fresh as possible to help avoid that funk increasing, but the flavour seems to fluctuate and change with each bite. The texture is the thing that threw Lovely One – a creamy, slimy and glutinous mango might be closest to it, but it’s a custardy sort of texture which isn’t likely to be your favourite if you’re not used to it. In Malaysia, it’s really popular whipped into ice creams and flavoured custards for eating – which actually might be pretty good.

Lovely One wasn't convinced.
Lovely One wasn’t convinced.

It should be said that there are a number of things which make me think that – unless you actually go to Malaysia – it will be hard to ever get a true sense of what it’s like to “do” Durian. Here’s what you should bear in mind:

  1. There are LOADS of different varieties – all with their own characteristics. And it’s also worth mentioning that those considered delicacies in Thailand would be pretty much considered rubbish in Malaysia, since I understand that in Thailand, it’s the done thing to eat them slightly crunchy and less ripe. Uncle Hamza wanted us to try the renowned Musang King (“fox king”) but as we were out of season, we settled for D24 instead, a hybrid with less pungency.
  2. You must must must must must eat Durian fresh. Either hacked straight out of the fruit or at least from a reliable source. Because that slightly fermented funky smell which hits you when it’s first cut open will only get worse.
  3. Malaysians warn of the “hiti” effect of Durian – it can cause bloating, dihoerrea and nausea if consumed in excessive amounts. If you’re eating for the first time, I’d go slow, sip water and make sure you’re with people who can share it with you.
  4. Because of this, Durian is very much a centrepiece fruit – it’s best consumed with friends and family. While we were eating, crowds of people pulled up to the roadside, spilling out of cars and crowding around tables. There would be a sense of anticipation as the leader of the group haggled to find the best specimen, before the pahang swung into the spiky exterior and expertly levered off the rind, showing off the flesh underneath. It’s fair to say that when you eat Durian, you get a real sense of occasion, even on the roadside.
Roll up roll up! Durian is often sold in special stands set up for the purpose, with the durians ready to examine on one side, and the cafe on the other. This one is in Section 19, Petaling Jaya.
Roll up roll up! Durian is often sold in special stands set up for the purpose, with the durians ready to examine on one side, and the cafe on the other. This one is in Section 19, Petaling Jaya.
All the different varieties on sale
All the different varieties on sale

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