Sunday, October 28, 2012

Durian: Smells like Sour, Oniony Dirty Laundry; Tastes Glorious

Apples, oranges and bananas are the fruit mainstays in the U.S., even though, in my opinion, the grapefruit outranks all these by miles. But travel to the tropics and dig in somewhere, like Alli and I have here in Kampung Juara, and your fruit world balloons like a stomach at a Vegas all-you-can-eat buffet. Mangoes, bananas (large, bite-size, sweet, extra sweet), papaya, mangosteens, pineapples, rambutans and more await your appetite. One fruit from the tropics though is known the world over, and depending on who you talk to, it’s either the tastiest damn fruit you’ll ever eat; or a slimy gross collection of pulp, which smells like farts and onions cocooned in dirty socks.

The subject of this blog. Click all photos to enlarge.
I’m writing ‘bout the durian. Every facet of this fruit is bizarre. It’s the shape of a pill and roughly the size of pineapples that grace American supermarkets, though it comes in a variety of sizes. Covered in extra spines, the sharpness of the outside skin is not to be trifled with. People who collect durians wear their motorcycle helmets when doing so and run from fruit to fruit not wanting to be stabbed by a collection of points when the fruit decides to drop 75 feet or so. That’s funny right? Most fruit is rotten by the time it falls off a tree (ever been to an apple orchard? Nobody wants ground-score apples). When durian is ripe it detaches from its tree and plunges to the ground. The idea is then to pick it up quickly before you get shanked by the fruit gods. I had the pleasure of picking up one freshly fallen durian off the ground, and believe me, I didn’t linger long. 

A freshly fallen Durian in all its glory.

The above fruit fell from a tree that high. Now do you understand why you don't hang out underneath them?
The durian’s distinctive outside armor and dispersal strategy pale in comparison to the reputation the fruit has acquired for its smell, taste and texture. The first durian I ever ate was in the U.S. and it was quite foul: slimy, goopy and actually a little bland. Eating fresh durian though has been one of the highlights of our trip so far. I’m serious; posting up and eating handful after handful of this fruit will leave you grinning from ear to ear. And give you some warm, pungent burps to boot.
The first Durian I ever scooped up off the forest floor. Yeah, I'm psyched.
Once you hack the fruit open with a machete (yeah, you could use a kitchen knife, but who uses that instead of a machete?), you’re presented with some globby pulp. So much has been written on this fruit over the years, especially by awestruck Westerners that I’m not even going to try to come up with an original description here. I will defer to David Quammen, one of my favorite writers and all-around badass, to take you there: “it’s creamy and slightly fibrous, like a raw oyster that’s been force-fed vanilla ice cream. There’s also a hint of almond. It tastes strange, rich, wonderful. It smells like a jockstrap. It doesn’t remotely resemble any substance that you’ve ever touched, let alone eaten.”
One of the gooey parts you eat. Its fleshy around the large seed, which is enveloped by the goop.
If you enjoy the taste you’ll want to eat more and more, ‘til you’re satiated and your belly is a roiling combo of fruity flesh from a few durians. If you don’t, then you probably don’t even want to be around the fruit because of its odor and having to witness the sight of durian enthusiasts licking their chops, like malnourished street cats that just scored a pallet of rotten meat. One’s not on the fence about durian, you’re either in or out. It’s like enjoying Neil Young’s late career album stretch: you think the cantankerous Canadian has still got it, or you just wish the dude would have done us all a favor and stopped after “Rust Never Sleeps.”  

Hanging out in Wak's family's durian hut, where you can eat loads of it and protect ya neck and head, while waiting for the next fruit to fly to the ground.
For me, I celebrate Neil Young’s entire catalogue and go ape-shit for durians. They are really that tasty. So do yourself a favor if you’re ever in SE Asia during durian season: collect a fresh one, or at least buy one, and see for yourself. You might love it or just want to spit it out. Either way it’s an experience, like indulging in one of Maryland’s unique gastronomic creations: scrapple. I got love for my native state, but that cotton candy meat is flat-out gross (I’ll take blue crabs instead). But hey, I’ve seen folks enthusiastically put down heaping deep-fried forkfuls of it. Hold the scrapple, pass the durian.  

Lots more durian-related photos can be found below:
Various durian trees.
Ones high up in the tree, waiting for their time to drop.
Wak's Mom cleaning off the outside of a durian in their family's house on their property.

'Bout to hack it open!
and then crack it on the seems. A pocket of deliciousness awaits.
Alli and Izzati are getting into it. Dani (who can be seen behind Izzati) not so much.
Woo-hoo! Now that's how you durian!
Tiny lil' baby durians that hopefully will be ripe next month.
A trio of varying sizes and shapes.
Opened up and ready to be consumed.
I wonder if Afik is enjoying this durian or not.
Fillin' up buckets. Ain't no thing.

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