Durian and Other Iffy Edibles
Everything you've heard about the durian--assuming you've heard anything at all--is true. It's sinister looking, but sweet tasting, a strange fusion of ugliness and beauty. Tim Laman's National Geographic photo, above, perfectly captures the durian's duality. It is ambrosial. It smells bad enough to induce vomiting. It is an aphrodisiac (Indonesians say that when the durians come down, the sarongs go up). It is illegal in many southeast Asian hotels and on public transport. Virgin Airlines once cancelled a flight because, thanks to the stench of a stowaway durian, the plane was unfit to fly in. No matter what which side of the argument you take, there's no denying it's one strange fruit.
Consider its spiked shell, which, if you were walking under a tree at just the wrong time, could have lethal implications--durians can easily be large as an American football. Stink fruit looks primeval, and our hunger for it may be equally archaic. Our taste for it, say some southeast Asians, harkens back to our animalistic, id-driven roots, since the "king of fruits" is said to be a favorite snack of the Orang Pendek--Sumatra's storied manbeast--and other wild, fearsome missing links. One of the more grisly descriptions comes from Adam Leith Gollner's highly entertaining book "The Fruit Hunters: A Story of Nature, Adventure, Obsession and Commerce." In it, he likens the scent of a durian to that of "a disinterrred corpse clutching a wheel of blue cheese."'
I tried durian several times while traveling in Java and Bali. One day while tooling around the artist's village of Ubud, I left a durian in my car while I went into a restaurant for some nasi goreng, and a few skewers of sate ayam. When I got back and opened the door, it smelt as if the entire NFL had stuffed their dirty socks under the back seat. Undeterred (though I'm not sure why), I got back to my bungalow, sliced the fruit open, and slopped out some of the creamy, custardy goop within. To me it tasted like sweet vanilla custard infused with bite of an onion. Sweet, but with a bite. Pleasant, really. But there was still that awesome olfactory challenge-durian boasts some of the same sulfuric chemical compounds as garlic and skunk. As a result, the entire experience was enveloped in cloud of noxious, malodorous gas, an olfactory assault. Not pleasant, really.
So it was odd snack. Rarely does one have the chance to taste something truly weird, something outside all prior sensory experience. For me it was a edgy epicurean adventure; and while I'm not about to become a member of one of the many fan clubs that host tasting parties, I'd give durian another go. The experience is so complex that it merits further exploration. If you're so inclined, it might be worth looking around Chinatown in New York or San Francisco or any similar Southeast Asian enclave. For more on durians and other really strange things to eat, head over to the weird fruit post at WebEcoist.