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

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.