Eating durian is like eating delicious baby feces. To many the fruit delicacy from southeast Asia smells like old tennis socks or bad breath, which is why it is also known as cheese or smelly fruit. Its flavor, however, is shockingly contradictory and very difficult to describe, a bit like walnut ice cream with a fine vanilla undertone.
Asians love it, devoting entire festivals to the fruit. I clearly remember family gatherings that were nothing more than durian feasts – outside, of course, in the absence of German noses.
A durian can weigh up to 6 kg and be as large as a melon. It originally comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. The naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace first tried a durian in the 19th century in Borneo and was enamored: “In fact, to eat durians is a new sensation worth a voyage to the East to experience… If I had to fix on two only as representing the perfection of the two classes, I should certainly choose the durian and the orange as the king and queen of fruits.”
As is proper for a king the durian is highly protected. Its hard heavy shell accounts for 70% of its weight – studded with thorns, it looks like a green and yellow spiked mace. There are, in fact, stories about the killer durian to which more than a few have fallen prey. Despite its weight, the durian does not grow on the ground but rather on trees. (Hanging out near ripening durians without a helmet is living dangerously.) On the inside the soft yellow fruit resides in small chambers, permeated with a smell so penetrating that the Singaporean subway has signs banning it.
In the West, durian is still rather exotic despite long-standing availability in Asian markets. It is popular only among a minority thus far, such as immigrants who know it from home, gourmands with a penchant for limit experiences and raw foodies.
Once a year in August – and this year’s the last hoorah – the Woodstock Fruit Festival takes place in upstate New York. It is one of the largest raw food festivals in the world, where for $1,300 visitors can gorge themselves all week long at an all-you-can-eat buffet of uncooked fruit and vegetables. Between meals they can take part in yoga and meditation classes, perfect the art of hoola hooping or paint mandalas. Of all the fruits on offer, durian is hands down the King of Fruits. No other fruits get their own events, such as the Durian Beach Party and the Midnight Durian Vampire Party, where partygoers consume thousands of durians. The durian is something for passionate lovers.
One can only hope that the Western durian clientele isn’t limited to the hardboiled followers of the raw food lifestyle. That would be a crying shame; durian tastes so divine! Identifying the durian’s peak moment is an art. In Asia, knowing your way around a durian is a bit like being a wine or cheese connoisseur. There are a bazillion varieties, cross-breads and even scentless durians. The latter sounds paradoxically like a perfume: Chanthaburi No. 1. It’s similarly pricy, too.