IS DURIAN THE “BEST” OR THE “WORST” FRUIT IN THE WORLD? Some Say it is Both
“This is the best tasting and worst smelling thing I have ever eaten!” This was the exclamation of my friend on his third try to eat the most unusual fruit in the world. He had come a long way. On his first encounter with the fruit, he immediately covered his nose and demanded that we get the stuff as far away as possible. He, like many other people, was repulsed by the smell of the fruit, which is best described as the smells emanating from a dumpster that held garbage for over a week, and including a human body, decaying for over a month. The smell is so offensive to so many that the fruit is banned in most hotels, elevators and taxi cabs in Malaysia.
The second time my friend encountered the fruit, he attempted to master it by covering his nose to block out the intolerable aroma and took in the creamy, fleshy fruit to make love with his tongue. But his taste buds were left completely unsatisfied because his blocking his nose also blocked out the taste of the fruit-and it is the taste that causes people to become addicted to durian.
The third encounter my friend had with the demon fruit was when he decided to dive in at the deep end-he uncovered his nose and ate. He allowed the repugnant smell to integrate with the creamy texture of the fruit to deliver a taste that cannot be compared to anything else-neither any other fruit, nor anything else that is edible.
I am an American expat living in Malaysia and married to a local. We live on an acre plus of land, which has a large variety of fruit trees. Among these are several tall and quite old durian trees. Many people in our village also have durian trees on their property. Having lived here for several years, I have seen many durian seasons come and go. I have also seen many peoples’ reaction to the fruit-both locals and expats from other parts of the world. Their reaction inevitably falls into one of two camps, there is no in-between. They either hate it to the point of not standing to either see it or smell it; or they love it to the point of an addiction. My friend started out in the former camp and gradually migrated to the latter camp. So much so, that he, like many locals, cannot wait until the durian season begins.
Durian trees grow quite tall and take a long time to reach maturity-as much as 15 years from seedling to fruit bearing. The season for harvesting durian runs between late October and early December. But trees do not bear fruit every year. The younger trees yield fruit every other year and the older trees will produce fruit every three, four or even five years.
A tree’s fruit-bearing year is predicted by the presence of durian flowers or blooms on its limbs during the months of July and August. Most of the remaining blossoms that are not blown away by strong wind or driven down by heavy rain become fruit. The durian season, or when the fruit is ripe for harvesting, is from mid October to the end of November. During that time the area around the trees reek of the distinctive flagrance of the fruit and there will be a flurry of early morning traffic of some villagers, either hurrying to the area of the fruit trees to gather what fruit that has fallen to the ground during the night or ambling back with their back bent over under the weight of a basket of the fruit. Some are so eager to be the first to get the fruit that they spend the night under a makeshift shed and wait for the sound of the fruit rustling through the leaves and the loud thud when it hits the ground. They then rush to search for the fallen fruit before their neighbors can get their hands on it. Even people who are not so attracted to the taste of Durian will spend a lot of time and effort to gather the fruit because it can be easily sold to the Chinese merchants for a good price, if the supply is not too abundant. Some villagers actually earn as much as a month’s wages from a few days of harvesting and sale to the Chinese.
A ripe durian can be larger than a large pineapple and much heavier, some weighing as much as 7-10 pounds. The outer shell is hard and covered with sharp spikes which can be quite painful to un-gloved hand. Needless to say, the gatherers of the fruit have to carful while under a durian tree, as a falling large fruit having contact with a bare skull can result in immediate hospitalization from a severe concussion. Because the shell is quite hard, the fruit is best opened with a sharp parang or small Asian sword. The fruit should be opened vertically in two even halves so that the fruit flesh in both halves is undamaged. What is revealed in each half is tightly-packed portions of the treasure, which is dug out with the fingers and the almost sexy texture of the fruit is devoured down to the core seed, which is discarded.
Those addicts who are inclined to over-indulge in the fruit need not worry about the ill effects on health. The fruit, despite it smell, is actually quite healthy. Durian is a good source of carbohydrates, protein, fiber and energy. It has high levels of vitamins B, C and E, as well as amino acids. Lastly, the durian fruit does not have to be enjoyed only fresh. It is often preserved with salt and kept in containers in the fridge. That way it retains its taste for over a year and can be used an accompaniment to many Asian dishes. But, be forewarned. If the preserved durian is left for even a short period uncovered, its over-whelming aroma will invade the taste of everything in the fridge, including the ice in the freezer.