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Last Chance Foods: Is Durian the King of Fruits or the King of Stink?

Friday, July 08, 2011

Some have said that the durian, a tropical spiky fruit in season through July, smells like a gym full of old socks or an unearthed cadaver. But others have called it the King of Fruits for its delicious, custard-y, flavorful flesh. All Things Considered Host Amy Eddings spoke with Francis Lam, the features editor for the Web site Gilt Taste (pictured below), for this week’s episode of Last Chance Foods about reasons to love and hate the durian.

Amy Eddings: I've never had durian until now. My producer Joy Wang was able to procure some frozen durian. It's in its frozen state, but it looks like raw chicken parts. Does it look like this when it's cut open fresh?

Francis Lam: You are not getting the full experience because you are seeing it in a plastic box. The real deal is ... if you imagine a bowling ball of your nightmares, like the kind of bowling ball that has spikes all over it, and rolls towards you with angry eyes and like threatens to destroy you -- like that's what it looks like in real life. They are probably six to eight pounds. The spikes are really hard ... it can actually pierce your skin. So, you think of all the ways you can weaponize this thing — that's before you get to its famous smell ... Often they'll sell it frozen, but when you have the whole thing, and you cut into it, it looks like an alien brain.

AE: It's a yellowish flesh?

FL: The color varies. Sometimes it's ivory, sometimes it's yellow.

AE: And pink, too, I have seen on photographs on the Web, or no?

FL: Sure. They're alien brains. They can be any color they want.

AE: What do you do once you crack it open? Do you puree it? Do you slice it up and drizzle, I don't know, olive oil over it? What do you do?

FL: You are much classier than I think I am. You can certainly take it out and present it. But really, I think, what most people do is go right at it with a spoon.

AE: Like a grapefruit, you're just scooping the innards out and eating it.

FL: Yeah. More like a pudding cup. In this case, like a giant pudding bowl. One of things about durian that's really remarkable is that it's so creamy. It's really like a custard. There are some fiber, there are some fleshy parts, there are some little chewy bits, but really so much of it is custard-y, and it it tastes like it too. I think one of the reasons people why love it. You know you think of South Asia, it's not a very dairy-intensive kind of culture, so there aren't that many things that give you that creaminess, that creamy mouth feel. And durian absolutely does. It's really pudding-like. You spoon right into it and it can be really wonderful. It has its own flavor and it can taste like tropical fruit custard or tropical fruit pudding.

Francis Lam, Features Editor for the web site Gilt Taste.AE: The little bit that I'm able to sample from this, it tastes very onion-y.

FL: That's the other thing. It can either be like tropical fruit panna cotta, or it can be creamed onions.

AE: And is that just fruit by fruit? Is that a function of ripeness?

FL: I've heard that if you get the truly fine durians from this part of Thailand versus that, you're not going to get the onion flavor or whatever. But the thing that's interesting to me is that I've actually found both in the same fruit. There's some part of the fruit that might be more sulfuric, more onion-y and some other part that's again, more fruity and creamy. The first time I ate it was really weird. One bite I'd be like, "This is like a delicious dessert," and another part of me would be like, "This would be kind of good with some salt and slathered on a burger." And then a third part of me was like, "That is just too weird. That's gross. Go away."

AE: All in one fruit -- I love it. So the smell: let's address the smell issue. Because I'm not working with a fresh cut open durian, I'm not getting the full monty here, but I am experiencing a little bit of that stale, sock, sweaty smell. But full on, when it's ripe and fresh, eh?

FL: You know, it's famous for its smell. In the Philippines, I've seen signs in hospitals saying, "No Durian on the Premises." Singapore, which is not renowned for its freedoms, one of things they actually won't allow you by law to do is go on mass transit holding a durian. Airlines won't let you fly with it ... When it's whole in the fruit, when it's not cut open, it's actually sort of lovely. The smell is ... I described it once as a cantaloupe on a tropical vacation with a little parasol. It has those tropical notes like a banana, or a coconut, or a pineapple would, but it's very melon-y. Once you crack it open — really I think it's the sulfur that gives you the onion-y quality — people say it smells like socks, some people say it smells like cadaver ... The smell is really pungent and it really travels, and it really goes everywhere. The thing that's interesting about the smell, too, is that some people don’t mind it. I think it might be one of those like cilantro things, where some people eat cilantro and are like, "Whoa!" Others are like, "It's delicious, this is great, what's your problem?"

Some people just adore this smell. The thing with ripeness is a teacher in culinary school once told me that, "Ripeness is just a continuum of rot." Once a fruit starts ripening, it's just on its way to rotting. As smells get more pungent, they get more lovely, they get more beautiful. It's really sort of subjective when we decide it gets gross. And tropical fruits, in particular, have a really intense relationship with that phenomenon.

The flesh of a durian. Photo by Mansoor Khan.AE: Yeah, right, the heat ... the humidity. Other than eating it raw, how else is durian used?

FL: I have never seen, personally, people really cook with it or do stuff with it. I think it's often such an event when you open a whole one that people just like to go for it. But certainly durian-flavored stuff is all over the place. Durian ice cream is really popular, I think in part because it mimics the original texture and creaminess of durian, so it's a natural match. I have seen durian cookies, durian cakes, durian chips, which I think are just the fruit sliced and dried, and maybe crisped up a little bit. But again you are talking about eight pounds of this stuff. Really, what you've got to do is get twelve of your least stink-adverse friends and just go for it.

AE: Right, I was going to say for people bold enough, curious enough to try this, where can they find this here, how do you open it? It sounds so daunting with the spikes. And what would you recommend? Just a bunch of people in a circle with spoons, passing it around and eating its custard-y flesh?

FL: Yeah, that's certainly how I've done it and that's certainly how I've seen it done. Opening it is is a little bit difficult. I can't emphasize how shockingly sharp the spikes are. You can really ruin someone's day with this thing. So, frankly, an ax is not out of question, considering you kind of want to be a little far away from it when releases its essence into the world. Probably a big cleaver ... don't go at it with a small knife. You want a big board and you want to dispatch it cleanly.

AE: I'm wondering how you shop for this if it's so spiky. I can just imagine the proprietor of the store in Chinatown has a towel or something and wraps the durian in a towel and hands it to you. And you have to bring your lumberjack gloves with you when you go shopping for durian?

FL: You know those gloves they sell for oyster shucking, the steel chain mail gloves. You can hang out with [some] of those. You know, often they'll just be packaged in a net. You can just pick it up and hang it. Again, it's six to eight pounds and the size of a bowling ball. You can walk around and really intimidate people with this thing, you're sort of swinging it. When I'm in Chinatown, I see them often, they are just hanging on a rack from these nets. You've gotta grab one and just sort of hold it like the head of your enemy when you go home.

What do you think of the durian? Is it the King of Fruits or the King of Stink? Please let us know by posting a comment below.

Luna Lin contributed to this report.

Hosted by:

Amy Eddings

Produced by:

Joy Y. Wang

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Comments [12]

Christina

My grandma brought it over once about fifteen years ago, and I remember that it looked exciting. I didn't have any idea what it was. Then she opened it, and it smelled really bad. I thought someone unearthed a dead animal. Then I realized it was the fruit. I remember gagging and my eyes hurting. Seeing the texture of it made me want to gag even more. I had to leave the house until it was safely in the trash and the smell dissipated. The water trick is interesting though.

Jul. 20 2011 01:16 PM

Thanks for the great memories of eating durian, everyone!

@Brian: I just returned from Taiwan, where I had both fried and steamed stinky tofu. The steamed was a little too hardcore for me, but I have no qualms about the fried kind. Helps that I grew up sampling and knowing about it, though.

Jul. 14 2011 11:09 AM
Stuart from NYC

Unfortunately, all the ones here have been frozen for shipment, even the whole ones, which mutes their natural deliciousness somewhat. It's kind of weird that westerners will gag at a lovely ripe fruit although they happily snarf up rotten milk (aged cheese makes many Asians gag).

Jul. 12 2011 06:05 PM
timotato from Newark, NJ

If you eat it the way it's supposed to be eaten... accompanied by mangosteens, it it heavenly!

Jul. 10 2011 05:08 PM
Helen Messina

The first time I had Dorian was delightful. We were on a long boat in a floating market in Thailand. Our guide steered our narrow, rocking boat to the "best" Dorian merchant in the market. Our Dorian professional pulled a large plastic bag out of the water. In the bag was a Dorian as big as a bowling ball. Our guide procured samples of this curious fruit for us and I tried it. The Dorian was wonderfully creamy, sweet, and slightly starchy (like bread and fruit in the same bite) and there was NO smell. We were told the way to a Dorian without the pungent odor was to submerge the fruit in water immediately after cutting it.

I never ate Dorian again. I do give them as gifts to people I like.

Jul. 08 2011 08:41 PM
Raphael Bergman from East Village

Born and raised in the alphabet city of the late '80s and I used to consider myself a pretty funky and outgoing guy when it comes to new experiences and new foods, but I will never forgive durian for striping me of my innocence. My dad had tried durian in the '70s while doing some freelance work in Indonesia it had been prepared for him and was "delicious." So, on a random quest in chinatown, we picked one up (not an easy feat considering its 10 lbs, spikes, and we were traveling by bike) and brought it home. The second we made an incision in the dense surface a foul smell dropkicked us in the shnoze and I yelled something along the lines of "holy shoot!" I ran for the door and jumped out of our apartment as the odor exploded, hot-boxing our tiny tenement apartment with the nastiest stench I could only describe as camel-hide lathered in way-expired non-organic milk. No amount of fabreze could mask it and we waited a good 20 minutes with all the fans on before reentering the house. "Okay, it stinks," says my dad, "but it takes great, just give it a try." It did not.

Jul. 08 2011 06:20 PM
Sue from nyc

I had seen an American's reaction to eating durian on tv, so when my student offered me a special fruit cake sent all the way from Vietnam by a relative, and I took my first whiff of the oniony smell, I was afraid. But I pushed on, and over a period of about 30 minutes managed to get the whole cake (about 2.5 inches in diameter) down.

I'm keeping an open mind, and I hope that after trying it a few more times I'll grow a taste for it. But I'm not holding my breath (but I am holding my nose.)

Jul. 08 2011 06:18 PM
Brian from Astoria

I tried Durian in Hong Kong. Although I consider myself a rather adventurous eater with rarified taste, I found it absolutely vile!

The only thing I have tried that I despised more, was stinky tofu. (You should add that to your agenda for discussion!)

The aroma/flavor struck me as that of rotting garbage mixed with spoiled raw onions. The memory of that taste stimulates my gag reflex.

Jul. 08 2011 06:02 PM
Lisa Ramaci from New York, NY

I ate durian when my husband and I honeymooned in the Far East. I had heard about it, was curious, and followed my nose when we went to a Thai market. Paid the equivalent of $10 for a football-sized example, took it back to our hotel room and cut it open; the interior was a bit off-putting, but we soldiered on. Like Limburger cheese, the taste is not as brutal as the smell - in fact, the best way I can describe what my fruit tasted like was light gasoline. Sounds odd, but it was not unpleasant. However, several years later when I tried durian candy in Hong Kong, it was appalling, almost rancid-tasting, far different from the fresh. I see the fruit in Chinatown regularly and toy with the idea of buying one, but when I remember how long it took to get the odor out of that Thai hotel room, well...

Jul. 08 2011 06:00 PM
John Malone from nyc

Durian is a culinary paradox. My first experience with it (after one was smuggled into my office in Singapore - where they were banned - by a local friend) can best be summed up as: it smelled terrible, it tasted exactly like it smelled, and it tasted fantastic.

Jul. 08 2011 06:00 PM
lanvy-nyc from nyc

For Vietnamese, Durian is most popular as a creamy shake.

In a blender, throw in ICE, sweet condense milk (to taste), durian (amount depends on how thick you like it). CHOP to a creamy consistency, add sugar for extra sweetness, throw in a sprig of mint. YUMMY, refreshing, and low cal goodness.

Jul. 08 2011 06:00 PM
Brian from Astoria

I tried Durian in Hong Kong. Although I consider myself a rather adventurous eater with rarified taste, I found it absolutely vile!

The only thing I have tried that I despised more, was stinky tofu. (You should add that to your agenda for discussion!)

The aroma/flavor struck me as that of rotting garbage mixed with spoiled raw onions. The memory of that taste stimulates my gag reflex.

Jul. 08 2011 05:59 PM

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Last Chance Foods covers produce that’s about to go out of season, gives you a heads up on what’s still available at the farmers market and tells you how to keep it fresh through the winter.

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