Death by Durian?

Durian is perhaps the most infamous of all fruits.  It is called the “king of fruits” by Southeast Asians and is prized for its unique taste.  It is called “the smelly gym sock of fruits” by Westerners and is avoided for its unique taste (and smell).  The smell is so… distinctive, that it is famously prohibited on the Singaporean subway and in many other public places in Southeast Asia.

The word durian comes from the Malay word duri, which means thorn, as the outside of the fruit is covered in spikes. It can grow up to a foot long and weigh up to seven pounds, so if you happen to be walking under a durian tree and one falls on your head, you’re pretty much going to die.

Durian is believed to be an aphrodisiac, leading to an Indonesian saying: durian jatuh sarung naik, meaning “the durians fall and the sarongs rise.”  It perhaps makes sense, then, that the supposed best place to find durians in Singapore is Geylang, the red-light district.

Shortly after I arrived in Singapore, a few friends and I set off (during the day) for Geylang.  We wound up at a stall called “Wonderful Durian” and let our friend from Indonesia select a fruit, since she had the most expertise.  We sat down on wooden benches and watched as a man with a machete whacked open the durian and placed it on our table.  I couldn’t smell anything as I reached for the fruit, but the word that came to mind after tasting it was, “turpentine.”  I don’t know why, since I’m pretty sure I’ve never eaten turpentine, but that was what it tasted like.

I was disappointed and surprised that I was experiencing a stereotypical Western reaction of disgust, since I’d actually had durian – and liked it – several times in DC.  Upon reflection, I decided that my DC experiences weren’t that legitimate: the first time the durian was mixed with sweet sticky rice and coconut milk, thereby potentially masking the true taste; the second time the durian had been frozen, which probably masked the true smell.

Someone said it takes 4 times to acquire the taste for durian, so I resolved to try again.  In the meantime, I ate durian chips, durian candy, freeze-dried durian, durian ice cream, and durian ah boling, all of which I enjoyed.

My second Singaporean durian experience was at a Durian Degustation organized by Leslie Tay of ieatishootipost.  There were three types of durian on the agenda in increasing order of reputation – Green Bamboo, D24, and Cat Mountain.  Before the tasting began, Leslie came over and explained to me that I couldn’t think about durian as a fruit because my brain couldn’t understand it in that context.  Instead, he told me that this was a creme caramel mixed with blue cheese.  He repeated that about 4 times and then I tried the Green Bamboo.  I wasn’t sure if it was Leslie’s explanation, all the durian-flavored things I’d been eating, or both, but I actually liked it.

I was happy – here I was, ahead of the curve, enjoying durian on only my second legitimate tasting.  I felt like any Singaporean Foodie points I may have lost for not liking chicken rice, I now more than made up for by liking durian, especially since some Singaporeans don’t even like it.  So I was proudly looking at my adjustment to life in Singapore through durian-colored glasses…until we got to the D24.

I approached the D24 voraciously; after all, it was supposedly a step above the Green Bamboo.  But as soon as the fruit hit my taste buds, the taste of turpentine was back.  Just to make sure it wasn’t the individual fruit, I tried a piece of the 2nd D24 on our table, but it tasted the same.

I was still optimistic about the arrival of the Cat Mountain, supposedly the best durian variety of all.  Sadly, it also tasted like turpentine, although the taste was milder than that of the D24.  At the end of the tasting, my new friend Shan told Leslie that one of our Cat Mountains wasn’t as good as the other.  This somehow resulted in someone bringing us a third Cat Mountain; supposedly a “creamy, buttery” one, as opposed to the others, which had been “sweet” and “bitter,” respectively.  After my experiences with the others, I don’t know why I decided to try this one, too.  (Isn’t the definition of stupidity repeating the same action and expecting different results?)  But I’m glad I did, because this was the durian to end all durians.  Unfortunately, I was too full from the others to have more than one piece.

So, if you’re looking for good durian, ask for a “creamy, buttery” Cat Mountain.  I don’t know that those are actually technical terms, though, so the vendor might just look at you like you’re crazy.  In which case, let me know.  I know a guy who can hook you up with the good stuff.

After the tasting, I headed to a friend’s birthday party, conscious of the fact that I probably had really bad durian-breath.  We had eaten at least 8 durians for a table of 5.  I passed on a celebratory birthday beer, not only because the thought of mixing beer with the still-present taste of durian in my mouth was revolting, but because I didn’t want to die.  While such stories of people dying after consuming durian and alcohol are probably the fault of the alcohol, scientists at the University of Tsukuba in Japan discovered last year that durian makes it up to 70% more difficult for the body to break down alcohol.  So kids, be careful when you drink and durian.

And just to make sure there are some “creamy, buttery” Cat Mountains left for me, here are some other general descriptions of what durian tastes like:

“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” – Naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace (1856)

“On first tasting it I thought it like the flesh of some animal in a state of putrefaction.” – Naturalist Henri Mouhot

“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.” – Chef/TV Personality Anthony Bourdain

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4 Comments

Filed under food, Singapore

4 responses to “Death by Durian?

  1. Foul odor aside, the durian has many uses outside of the culinary world…my mother infamously had to kneel on one during elementary school for punishment.

  2. I recall being on a cruise through Indonesia to Singapore several years ago. During a shore excursion we were exposed to durian, but it was strictly forbidden to bring any back to the ship. The smell was awful.

    As for turpentine, several of the “lesser breeds” of mango also taste of turpentine–not that I’ve tasted any turpentine either.

  3. Elizabeth: now it is time for you to go to the Singapore concert hall, which is modeled after a durian!
    carol

  4. Durian…. wow, the taste of heaven. I just bought one at Coles Super Market yesterday and it taste very sweet and creamy. The best natural custard:)

    Over-ripe durians taste awful and those that are kept too long after picking also taste disgusting…. and perhaps it is what the turpentine taste like to you…..:(

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