Durian – King of Fruits
by Kasma Loha-unchit
Durian: Exotic Spiky Fruit Stirs Strong Passions:
You Either Love It or Hate It
This year in Thailand (Nov. 1998 to February 1999) has been a better year than normal for the exotic tropical fruit, durian. We found them heaped into large piles all over the country.
The spiky fruits have a hard, brownish-green peel and vary in size from a large cantaloupe to a large human head, weighing three to six pounds. When available in local markets, especially in the summer, they frequently attract curious passers-by and occasional non-Asian shoppers - not only because of their unusual appearance, but the frenzied activity that sometimes surrounds the bins as dark-haired Asians exercise such meticulous care in making their selections. They scrutinize the fruit from top to bottom and side to side, as if looking for a magic mark, and many even hold it up to their nose to get a good sniff.
One such curious visitor happened to be one of my students. She and her husband came from Miami recently to take one of my weeklong intensive cooking courses. Audrey loves to explore ethnic markets for unusual ingredients she could incorporate into her restaurant's menu. It was the crowd that attracted her attention and as she watched those usually docile Asians pushing and shoving to grab the best of the bunch, she couldn't help but get in on the action.
Not knowing what to do with it, she thought she would bring it to class, but in her haste, forgot and left it in her hotel room. I warned her what to expect when she returned to the hotel that afternoon, and sure enough, she found an overpowering stench permeating the entire room from the now defrosted and warm durian.
Not being able to stand it, she asked her husband to quickly take it down the hallway and dispose of it. He, on the other hand, thought they should at least try the fruit first and pried the hard shell open. It tasted pretty good to him, but Audrey refused to have anything to do with it and ordered him out of the room. Durian does stir up strong emotions. One either likes it or hates it and there seems to be little in between. It has divided families - but only for brief periods during the peak of the season, when the durian-loving spouse is often banished to the backyard to devour the precious golden fruit.
It stinks, you say. Of course not. Haven't you seen the sign posted alongside the durian bin in some Asian markets, saying it is "sweet-smelling"? And haven't you also seen little bottles of durian essence being sold alongside jasmine, coconut, banana and other fragrances? To durian lovers, its aroma is heavenly and cannot be separated from its divine taste; durian haters, on the other hand, despise it and think it is has the stench of garlic and onions, and worse yet, of sewer or rotten meat.
Perhaps the smell and taste of durian is an "Asian thing" imbued into their genes from generations of exposure to the fruit, you say. Maybe you would be interested in knowing what the famous 19th century naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace, had to say after he ate his first durian in Borneo: "A rich, butter-like custard highly flavored with almonds, but intermingled with wafts of flavor that call to mind cream cheese, onion sauce, brown sherry and other incongruities. The more you eat of it, the less you feel inclined to stop."
That last line perhaps hold the key. Too frequently a first encounter with durian is in the form of a tiny bite. This small taste only serves as an introduction to an exotic flavor unlike any other one has ever experienced. If one is bold enough to continue until he has eaten an entire piece of fruit, his opinion may change as he becomes more acquainted with the fruit and learn to discern the depth of its flavor. Encountering a durian for the first time is not unlike encountering someone with an overbearing personality; the strong odor and strange taste are like a "facade" to protect a most delicate and delightful character.
I often hold durian-tasting sessions with cooking students. In some groups, everyone loves it; in others, the response is totally opposite. Most of the time, the group is divided, with some liking it, some neutral and the rest frowning at best.
Much of the difference in group response depends on whether the durian I purchased is actually a good ripe fruit of the best variety, and here the problem lies: it is not easy to select durian that has been frozen. The usual indicators revealing degree of ripeness and readiness can no longer be applied.
Freezing changes the texture of fruit and texture affects how one tastes. Freeze any of your favorite fruits and what happens? Would you like cantaloupe as well, or at all, after it has been frozen and thawed? The firm, smooth, custardy texture of durian is all but lost from freezing. It becomes soggy (under-ripe durian can have a slight crunchy texture mixed in) and the membrane surrounding the flesh, hardly noticeable in fresh durian, toughens.
Unfortunately, fresh durian is hard to come by in the Bay Area. They have to be specially flown in, which prices it beyond curiosity's pocketbook. Often these are picked greener to survive transport and, therefore, may not be the best.
If you are curious enough to try a frozen durian, select one that has a fresh-looking color on the outside - a combination of medium shades of green and brown. Dark brown ones have been frozen too long, or frozen and thawed many times over. Buy one that is labeled "mornthong" as this is generally the best eating variety if frozen at the proper stage of ripeness. To ensure that it has ripened enough before being frozen, choose one that has a small split somewhere in the peel, but not one full of large splits all around which is likely to be over-ripe.
The split will help you cut into the fruit easier, pulling back the hard peel to expose the golden flesh tucked into pods in the sectioned fruit. Each section holds about three custardy segments, each with a reddish brown seed. The seeds may be large and plump, or small and shriveled. Good varieties usually have small seeds surrounded by lots of custardy flesh.
For first-time tasters, it is best to eat the durian as soon as it has thawed enough to cut open, the flesh still partially frozen. At this stage the aroma is not as strong and the flesh not so soggy. If you do not object to the taste but are not fond of the soggy texture, remove the flesh from the seeds, simmer in coconut milk to a smooth sauce and serve over sweetened, coconut-flavored sticky rice, much like sticky rice is served with mangoes in Thai restaurants. Or, mix the sauce with whole milk or cream, add sugar as desired, and pour the mixture into an ice cream maker to churn into delicious durian ice cream.
Marco Polo Ice Creamery in San Francisco makes a very rich and tasty durian ice cream, also sold in some Southeast Asian markets in pint-size containers. If you decide to have your first encounter with durian in the form of this ice cream, do take more than a single bite. Remember: the first bite is only an introduction; with each subsequent bite, the flavor can really grow on you.
If your experience with frozen durian is either favorable or neutral, you would most likely fall in love with a good fresh one the next time you are in tropical Asia during durian season - around March through May. But even if you passionately dislike frozen durian, you may still find yourself loving the fruit once you have tasted a truly good one overseas, as one of my students has found. He loved it so much that he now enjoys frozen ones because they remind him of his peak experience while in Thailand.
There is a saying in Singapore during durian-picking season: "When the durians come down, the sarongs go up." That disgusting and lovable fruit, which stirs up strong passions, is reputedly an aphrodisiac. More the reason to like it!
A great place to sample durian in Thailand is Aw Taw Kaw Market. See our two blog entries: