Fruity Controversy

Oftentimes when walking through a market scene in South East Asia, you’ll come across a near-unbearable odor, ranging from rotten onions to pig shit – yet what you truly smell is neither. An odor ever changing, it is the trademark of the perhaps most infamous and controversial fruit of all time: the durian.

I myself am a self-proclaimed durian lover. Where before, the very thought of that incomprehensibly bad stench made my shudder from head to toe, I now only smell a distinctly identifying odor – neither bad nor good, yet more of an indicator that good things are nearby.

The flesh is indescribable in taste, varying immensely between species from texture to looks, with some fruits having harder, drier and milder pulp, while others possess a creamier, more pungent yet sweet flesh. In general, however, the texture can remind one of custard, pudding or butter, while the taste goes from almonds and vanilla to delicious cream cheese and the occasional hearty onion dish.

It’s something to get used to, but once you do, you don’t want to stop. The odor no longer becomes repulsive, and the taste gets better and better the more you eat it. Like a test of courage in fruit-form, a trial presented to you by the gods to evaluate your guts, it rewards you in the best of ways.

Yet it does truly do its best to keep you from eating it. First and foremost, the fruit is covered in a massive spiked husk – and these aren’t some pussillanimous spikes. Man, I’m not even sure how that’s supposed to be pronounced.

These are hardcore, real-deal spikes that draw blood. If you’re not careful, you can get a couple serious scratches trying to pry the lovely flesh from beneath that unloving shell.

Then there’s the stench that, if you’re no lover of durian like I, can be a true bane to your mood. So much that the fruit is unofficially banned in most public places in South East Asia, and carrying one with you in Singapore’s public transit is a fine-able offense.

I used to shy away in disgust at the smell, and many others who don’t dare taste the fruit, or simply don’t find it to their liking do as well. It makes you wonder just why, though, it’s become so revered – sure, the flesh is tasty, yet why is it so hard to get to? What sort of scientific natural selection forced the fruit to develop such strong defense mechanisms?

In the wild, it’s often consumed by beasts regardless of the dangerous husk and unappetizing smell. Tigers often find fallen fruits and lick the flesh out from the natural cracks, which begin to appear when the fruit starts ripening. Other formidable animals, like the Sumatran elephant, are great fans of durian, and legend attributes it to being the favorite snack of great beasts such as the Orang Mawas – Malaysia’s version of big foot.

This courageous reputation has led the fruit to being called the “King of the Fruits” in its native lands. Yet it’s abroad where the reputation really soured.

For 600 years has Western civilization been aware of the mystery of the durian, with many explorers and naturalists citing its delicious flavor and texture, yet unappealing odor. One famous account by a 19th-century British naturalist goes to say that:

“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.”

This quote, from Alfred Wallace, goes on to cite previous claims by other western explorers, all of whom seem to agree on the amazing and unexplainable qualities of the fruit’s taste.

More recently, however, controversy on the fruit has led it to becoming part of the Asian “exotic” stereotype, with “Bizarre Foods” host Andrew Zimmern citing the taste as similar to “completely rotten, mushy onions”. Fellow celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, who happens to love the fruit, says: “Its taste can only be described as…indescribable, something you will either love or despise. …Your breath will smell as if you’d been French-kissing your dead grandmother.”

Although I can’t attest for the dead grandma part, I’ll say that his description is most apt – you’ll love it or you’ll hate it. It took a great leap of faith for me to get to love it, but once I was hooked, I stayed hooked. Others seem to keep the odor in mind with too much prevalence, not letting the taste of it really sink in – or just plain hate it.

Nutritionally, the fruit is high in all macronutrients, making it an incredibly heavy meal, and is highly recommended by raw food enthusiasts as an excellent source of healthy fat. Others state the fruits glycemic index as a negative. In Chinese medicine, the leaves and roots are often used against fevers and such. Furthermore, it seems to have heating qualities, as eating fruit is believed to cause excessive sweating.

It’s also stated to be an aphrodisiac foodstuff.

So, if you’ve never tried durian before, but know a place where you can get some, I highly recommend giving it a try.

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