XLVIII: The King of Fruits

In Southeast Asia, there exist about thirty different tree species in the genus Durio. Nine of these species produce an edible fruit called a durian, and the most prized of all comes from the Durio zibenthinus. Roughly 30 centimeters long and 15 centimeters wide and weighing up to 3 kilograms, this oblong fruit has a thorn-covered greenish-brown husk and flesh that ranges from pale yellow to red and tastes of “a rich custard highly flavoured with almonds” according to British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace.

And it stinks.

The flesh of a durian has an odor so potent and foul that even with the husk intact, the aroma can make people vomit. It has been described as resembling the odors of turpentine, gym socks, raw sewage, stale vomit, rotting onions, and the breath of someone who’s been French-kissing a corpse, according to Anthony Bourdain. In fact, the smell is so nauseating that durians are banned in hotels and on public transport in much of Southeast Asia. The smell can also attract squirrels, mouse deer, elephants, pigs, orangutans, and tigers from up to a half mile away. If allowed to continue to ripen after the husk has been removed, the flesh becomes slightly alcoholic, adding to its pungency and appeal for many residents of Southeast Asia, who consider this bizarre food to be “the king of fruits”.

Durian is a popular flavoring in sweet dishes like ice cream, milkshakes, pastries, traditional Malay candies, and even cappuccinos. In various regions of Southeast Asia, you can also find a lot of savory durian treats — Sumatran sambal tempoyak (fermented durian, coconut milk, chilis, scallions, and other spices), Thai fresh durian over sweet sticky rice, Malaysian red durian with onions and chilis, and Indonesian fish soup with red durian. The chestnut-sized seeds of the durian are toxic when raw due to their cyclopropene fatty acids, but when cooked have the texture of a yam, but stickier, and are often served sliced and dusted with sugar.

The durian has been popular in its native regions since prehistoric times, but it has only been known to the Western world and to science for about 600 years. No offense to anyone who likes durian, but I really don’t think we here in the Western Hemisphere were missing much. Tempting as durian pancakes sound (seriously, they’re so cute and tasty-looking), I can barely handle dicing garlic or onions without the smell getting to me, so I think I’ll pass.


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