By Austen Fiora
3:30 PM EDT, July 2, 2013
Ask a friend to name a few dishes that are polarizing, disgusting, or just bizzarre, and you'll probably get a familiar shortlist. Haggis, uni, frogs' legs, pigs' feet, and thousand-year eggs are all familiar foods that some swear by...and others swear off. But few people in the US have heard of the mysterious durian, and fewer still sell it (more on that later). If you can get your hands on this fruit, though, you might find it worth your while.
The durian is native to Malaysia and Brunei, where it hangs from trees that can grow in excess of 150 feet. The fruit is shaped like a football, but grows slightly larger, and it is covered in sharp spines. The durian's imposing appearance has won it the name "King of Fruits." That, and the smell: the durian's odor is so pungent that it is banned from public transit in Malaysia.
This is the crux of the durian's mystery. There are some who say that the flesh of the fruit, hidden under the spines, is simply the best thing anyone can eat within their lifetime. Others refuse to be in the same room with the fruit, whose smell alone reminds them of unspeakably foul things.
Recently, I set out to take this culinary litmus test. After some searching, I found a market hawking all kinds of imported produce, from lychees to jackfruit. While many stores will freeze their durians, it's much better to buy fresh, as with most foods. Key things to look for when choosing a durian are the color (the fruit ripens from green into a brown-yellow), cracking (a few cracks in the shell mean the fruit is ready to be eaten), and the quality of the stem (it should be able to support the heavy fruit as you lift it). As I scoped out the durian selection, I got a few bemused stares from people around me, which I took as a good sign.
Once I got home, I realized that what I had perceived as a distinct but mild aroma was actually a pervasive, colonizing stench. Everything smelled like durian: my backpack, the entire first floor of my house, and the fridge, where I eventually quarantined the fruit. Realizing that my journalistic project was straining my relations with my roommates, I decided to bite the bullet. I assembled a small cadre of people who weren't revolted by the smell and dug in. Using a flathead screwdriver, I cracked open the husk and separated a pod from the fruit. The flesh has a creamy top layer that conceals the white, pulpy flesh underneath. And so we began.
I can safely say I've never tasted something like this. At first, the flavor recalls tomate de arbol, which has an oniony bite without the underlying flavor of onions. This combines with something like the ghost of almond extract, all riding on a subtle taste of sweet custard. I can't say that I'd call this a positive experience, but it's one that I was compelled to repeat again and again, obsessed as I was with the overwhelming weirdness of the durian. A straw poll of my comrades revealed more definitive opinions. One reviewer described the taste as "like farts." Another opted for a simple "nope."
It could be that, like cilantro, you either get the durian or you don't. I'm not prepared to say that I really understand its appeal, but your mileage may vary. If you're feeling adventurous, consider buying one at one of the vendors above. Caveat emptor.
Durian: Where to Buy It
A Dong Market, 160 Shield St., West Hartford. (860) 953-8903
Five Star Farmers Market, 75 Overlook Terrace, Hartford. (860) 953-5458
Hong Kong Grocery, 71 Whitney Ave., New Haven. (203) 777-8881
NK Asian Market, 8 Dyer St., Danielson. (860) 779-6332
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