The Asians call it the king of fruits, but the durian, a curious fruit covered with spiky protuberances that looks much like a medieval mace than something you’d want to ingest, stinks. Terribly. So much so that bringing it into many hotels and onto public transport in countries where it is commonly sold is generally forbidden. Especially since the odor can persist for several days.
The big fruit is produced by a large tree native to Southeast Asia (Malaysia, Indonesia, New Guinea, etc.), but now grown in tropical areas throughout that continent. The most popular and widely cultivated species is Durio zibethinus, of which there are dozens of cultivars, but there are about 30 other species.
In the wild, the huge fruits (they can measure 6 to 12 inches/15 to 30 cm in diameter and weigh from 2 to 7 pounds/1 to 3 kg) fall from the trees at maturity. (You won’t surprised to learn that durian pickers are obliged to wear a safety helmet!) Their smell is weak at first, scarcely noticeable as long until the fruit is opened, and sometimes even quite attractive, but gains in intensity after 2 or 3 days, since the fruit continues to mature after it is harvested and may take a few days before it begins to split open.
The odor is designed to attract animals from a distance, up to half a mile (1 km) away. Indeed, deer, wild pigs, orangutans, elephants and even tigers come looking for the malodorus and very nourishing fruit. Since large mammals often carry the fruit’s large seeds away and deposit them elsewhere, they are vital to the tree’s dispersion.
My One and Only Taste Test
I have run into durians several times during garden tours in Asia, including Thailand, Malaysia, China, Vietnam and Indonesia, both the tree (seen in botanical gardens and in orchards) and the fruit (in public markets). Usually market organizers place durian merchants on the periphery of the main market, downwind from the others.
“No durian” signs are posted everywhere in these countries: in public buildings, hotels and public transport notably… but doesn’t stop determined durian lovers from trying to sneak them in. One hotel owner complained to me that Chinese visitors smuggle them up to their rooms to eat… then he can’t rent the room for a week!
If I have seen and smelt (from a distance) durians many times, I only tasted a durian once, at the Bali Botanical Garden (Kebun Raya Bali) in Indonesia. Our guide had brought one to our picnic lunch as a dessert… for those who wanted to taste it, of course. This is the ideal way to taste a durian: in a group, you’re less likely to chicken out.
I’d say about half the group bowed out immediately, however, before they even smelled the fruit. A few others dropped out as the fruit was served, holding their nose and unable to stomach the idea of slipping the gooey pulp into their mouth. Only the bravest (some might say the most foolhardy) participants managed to ingest a few spoonfuls.
The smell? It was terrible, nauseous, like the strongest cheese you’ve ever smelt, but twice as intense. Others say it smells like dirty socks, rotting onions or vomit. The taste? Exquisite, like an extra-rich, extra-sweet gelato, with hints of almond and cream cheese. The flesh melts in your mouth, a bit like that of an avocado, but much creamier. What a stupendous experience!
But no one had warned me of the aftertaste! It lasts a good 5 minutes. Some people hated it and rinsed their mouths several times after finishing their portion. I found it… surprising, curious, but not exactly unpleasant. I was however pleased when it finally did go away.
On the New York Subway
Once you’ve gone through the initiative experience of tasting a durian, you’ll never forget its smell. And the only time I smelled it in North America was in New York City a few years ago.
I had just boarded a train and the door had scarcely closed when I smelled it: an intense stink of rotting cheese. There had to be a durian somewhere!
I looked at the other occupants. It was late at night, almost midnight, and there weren’t many people on board, only about 10 at most. Their discomfort was palpable: their nostrils were pulled back, they were looking suspiciously at other passengers. Some left the subway car at the next stop. Another started to enter, but quickly changed her mind.
My suspicions immediately turned to an elderly Asian women sitting next to a bulging grocery bag. She had her eyes cast downward and seemed to be trying to avoid eye contact. Under the pretext of changing seats, I strolled past her and peaked into her bag. Eureka! Among the other objects, I was able to make out the spiky shell of a durian. I had found the culprit!
But what to do? There are no “no durian” signs in the New York subway. To whom was I supposed to report her? I finally followed the lead of the other passengers and simply moved to another car, leaving the Asian lady to enjoy the car all by herself.
Want to Try One?
Frozen durians are widely available in major North American, European, and Australian cities, especially in Asian grocery stores. If you eat them still partially frozen, you can even taste the fruit without having to put up with the stench. But I’ve been told that frozen durians, even when thoroughly thawed and stinky, don’t have nearly the taste of fresh durians.
In season, you can sometimes find fresh durians in these same stores, refrigerated to reduce their pre-sale stink. Durian aficionados however complain about the quality of durians shipped from Thailand (the major exporter), claiming they aren’t as odoriferous as the ones sold fresh in Asia and that they just don’t have the proper durian taste.
If you want to taste a fairly good durian outside of Asia, at least make sure a friend who knows durians accompanies you to the store to help you pick out a good specimen. Otherwise the salesperson is likely to palm off a second-rate fruit on you.
Does that mean you have to travel to Asia to taste a really good durian? Probably!
Tasting a durian: one more thing to add to your bucket list!