Looks lethal, smells worse but tastes divine. Is the durian the most divisive fruit?
From France’s frogs’ legs to Swedish surstromming – fermented herring, yum – there are plenty of foods which many might find challenging. Or rather the idea of them might seem challenging. As a frequent haggis muncher, this correspondent can assure the haggis-curious that its taste is much milder than its fearsome offal-heavy reputation would suggest.
While foods such as mopane worms, witchetty grubs or fried grasshoppers were or are an authentic part of a country’s food culture, for most visiting tourists they are a cross between a dare and a social media opportunity. Balut – fertilized duck eggs – may be a popular street food in the Philippines but, for the visitor, the benefit of eating one is not the flavour – or the alleged aphrodisiac effect – but the bragging rights. Usually served with a side dish of machismo.
Taken at the moment of consumption, the inevitable selfie says is ‘Look what an intrepid traveler I am’ rather than ‘Admire my sophisticated palate’. The esoteric taste of the food plays second fiddle to its supposed exoticism and the assumed adventurousness of the pictured gastro-pioneer.
The exception to the rule is the durian fruit, a Southeast Asia delicacy that makes up for its unholy stench with a creamy flavour that its fans consider exquisite. It has a dare devil rep which is matched by an epicurean kudos. The durian gives taste bud satisfaction as well as bragging rights.
First, the minus points. The late Anthony Bourdain quipped that eating durian was like ‘French kissing your dead granny’. Less controversially, sweaty socks, rotting onions and decaying meat are often invoked when describing the odour of the King of Fruits. These are a result of the flesh producing ethanethiol, a volatile sulphur compound also found in skunk spray.
So pungent is the smell that the fruit is banned from most public buildings and transport systems in the region. Much like cigar smoke, the aroma of durian lingers long after the fruit has been consumed and hotels in cities such as Bangkok impose fines on guests who have smuggled in the fruit.
An over-reaction? Well, in 2021, the suburb of Dickson in Australia’s Canberra was evacuated after a suspected toxic gas leak. The source of the offensive smell was eventually traced to a rogue durian. Backing up its olfactory defences, the spiky and heavily armoured fruit looks as though it could be easily adapted into a bone-crushing, medieval weapon like a flail or a mace.
So far so off-putting. However there are valid reasons as to why the durian is so prized in countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, The Philippines and, increasingly, China. If you can get beyond the putrid pong, then the flesh delivers a range of ripe flavours that durian heads will pay top dollar for. In 2021, one particularly fine specimen sold for $48,000 US while a range between $140 and $400 for a 2- kilo Kan Yao durian grown in Thailand’s Nonthaburi province are not unheard of.
In the UK, so far this year, getting a common or garden cucumber on the shelves has proved difficult for most of the major supermarket chains so the chances of durian making an appearance are slim to none. There are specialist fruit and veg importers who can supply the delicacy as the durian harvest season comes to fruition in the next few months. Prices range from around £25 for a pack of frozen durian flesh to £130 for a 3 kilo fresh fruit.
Last week, at the very beginning of the durian season in Nonthaburi, roadside stalls were piled high with durian and we paid £5 for a smallish specimen. Cutting away the tough shell and extracting a pale yellow lobe, the vendor placed the fruit in greaseproof paper; presumably so our hands were not tainted by the pungent whiff of durian. Soft and creamy, almost like set custard in texture, the flesh was sweet and rich. Crème brûlée is an oft used comparison. I could taste that along with a slightly funky, tart fruitiness. Like a peach just about to tip over between hyper ripe and spoiled.
And the much vaunted stench? The alleged gag-inducing aroma of rot? The fetid honk of decay? None at all. Perhaps it was too early in the season. Perhaps it was a durian cultivated to have a less aggressive malodor but, whatever the reason, no-one among our party of four was holding their nose and trying desperately to keep breakfast down.
Durian has the reputation for leaving no-one on the fence but, while this one had the intriguing flavours, it was lacking the famed in-your-face, eye-watering tang that is its signature characteristic. Ludicrously, I felt slightly cheated. Denied of any bragging rights. Can anyone hook me up with some surstromming?