Hail to the King of Fruits

It’s been compared to rotting flesh, bad cheese and skunk urine. It’s often banned in hotels and public transport throughout Southeast Asia. Its flesh is fragrant enough to attract monkeys a mile away.

Yet after a few evenings spent with my friend Audran, getting to know the much-vilified fruit better, durian is fast becoming my favorite fruit.

Hail to the king!

An Ill-Deserved Reputation

There’s no denying durian has a strong smell. As soon as its shell cracks and it starts to ripen, the stench will fill the air faster than a fart. In a crowded elevator, things get downright hostile. The stink some North Americans associate with Chinatown is often due to the pungent fruit alone: you’d be hard-pressed to distinguish durian and rotten meat in a blind smell test.

But don’t let the olfactory assault detract you: some of the best things in life can give off quite a stench. There’s nothing quite like the dirty socks smell of an old, runny Camembert, yet the French express only love for their cheese. Likewise, we generally do not turn up our nose on a fine Sauerkraut, or the mature bitterness of a stout beer.

But introduce an unfamiliar food that stinks, and suddenly you hear “garbage”, “rotting meat” or “gym sock”; we reserve words such as “complex”, “pungent” and “commanding” only for the stinks we have grown with.

Leave your inhibitions behind! Embrace the stink!

The Art of Eating Durian

Native to Indonesia and Malaysia, “durian” is the name of the fruit of various tree species belonging to the genus durio. Of thirty durio tree species, six are known to produce edible durian. To further complicate matters, a great number of cultivars exist: cultivated varieties of durian, prized for certain variations in taste, smell, size or texture.

The durian fruit is a huge, oblong mass, covered in spikes hard enough to draw blood. A durio tree can grow as high as fifty meters; I feel for the guy who gets pummeled by a durian on its way down. The thing must hit like a morning star thrown from the back of a bus.

Most of the durian fruit is discarded; people eat the yellow stuff surrounding the seeds, accessed by splitting the husk with a large knife. Depending on the variety of durian, this yellow center can be fibrous or creamy. The Malays and Singaporeans prefer a rich, creamy, custard-like center; in some instances, the creamiest centers have had a chance to ripen enough that they hold a small amount of alcohol.

The Mountain Cat King

Over the course of two weeks, Audran and I had a chance to sample three cultivars of durian; from these, we glimpsed the immense variety of tastes on offer at the court of the king of fruits.

The durian in fashion right now in Singapore is the Cat Mountain King, or 猫山王 (Mao Shan Wang). Whereas a simple durian might set you back $1 USD, the best Mao Shan Wang can set you back $30 USD for two kilograms – weighed with the husk. We also tasted a variety called Tai Shang Wang (太上王), which we found creamier and sweeter, with a nice, bitter aftertaste.

When compared with a lesser cultivar such as D24, the Mao Shan Wang and the Tai Shang Wang deserve their higher price tags. There is not an ounce of fibrous fruit to be found here: everything is ripe, rich yellow, and the kind of creamy that avocados only dream of.

The taste, similarly, is incredibly complex: sweet, with a pleasantly bitter aftertaste and notes of almond and pineapple, and a thick, rich, creamy taste.

After eating durian, you realize how each fruit taste is a single, vibrant note. To eat a durian is to taste an orchestral movement.

Durian Dreams

After the few evenings I spent sharing durian with Helene and our friends Audran, Joëlle, Ben and Nadia, I no longer understand the vilification of durian in the West. When I now smell a durian on a bus or in a store, I long to taste the creaminess of the king of fruits.

If you’re in a country where durian is readily available, I strongly recommend you give it a try. Set aside your preconceptions, and approach durian as you would any refined, complex and mature food or drink.

Chances are, you too will look at strawberries and mangoes as mere subjects in the court of the Thorny One.

Where to Go

Durian is found in many places in Singapore, notably in Geylang, where street stalls line the curb for entire blocks, as well as around Little India. They are best enjoyed in season, between May and September.

You will find durian in a number of other countries around Southeast Asia; the best ones are said to come from Malaysian Borneo and Indonesia. China is the greatest importer of durian, followed by Singapore and Taiwan. The Thai grow a great number of durian cultivars, and Brunei, the Philippines and Indonesia each have their own varieties as well.

In most countries, eating durian is a simple matter of selecting your fruit from a street stall, and asking the seller to split it open for you. You can scoop out the flesh with your fingers. Most importantly, enjoy, and don’t drop any on the sofa!

About Daniel Roy

Daniel is a writer, backpack foodie, slow traveler, and endurance runner. He is the author of the upcoming book, "The Way of Slow Travel: A Hands-On Guide to the Best Travel of Your Life."

6 comments

  1. I love that point about eating durian is like tasting an orchestral movement. Beautifully phrased. I am still not sold, though. I’ve tried it as a teenager and the smell just apalled me. Maybe now that I’m older and my tastes are more refined, I won’t mind it as much.

  2. Hehe! Well, I’d definitely classify it as an ‘adult’ fruit… And hey, if I didn’t eat nor drink the stuff I didn’t like as a kid, I’d deprive myself of many awesome things, such as espresso, stout beer, whiskey…

    I’ll start the Try A Durian Foundation, I think. 🙂

  3. i thought i was the only madman to give up games industry. i am glad to find you back doing this after shanghai! i’m sure you enjoy!

  4. Andrei! Hey, how are you?!

    What are you up to these days, fellow madman? 🙂

  5. Hey!!!!!tat not from singapore…is from MALAYSIA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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