Today we have a special treat for you here at gooseberry mooseberry and also a new category of posts: trying interesting, new and unusual (to us) foods. For today's post we've sampled the durian.
The durian is a large fruit, about the size of a melon. The edible flesh is contained within a spiny husk; the spines are sharp and may require working gloves to handle it. The durian, sometimes called the king of all fruits, is native to southeast Asia. What makes this fruit so unique is its smell and its taste.
Opinions about the durian vary widely, and rarely there is anyone who tried it who doesn't feel strongly about the fruit. The durian experience is very personal and differs from individual to individual. Some can never get past the smell: it is often described as very strong and foul, smelling of rotting flesh. Others describe the smell as rotten onions or skunk. Yet others describe the smell of the durian as that of sweat or body odor. And there are those to whom it smells delicious and who can't get enough of it. The perception of taste is equally variable. Some say it tastes how it smells: disgusting, tasting like rotten eggs, onion or ripe cheese, others say it tasted like custard, and yet others are absolutely addicted to it. Some even say it's an aphrodisiac.
The host of one of my favorite shows, Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel, has described the smell as stinky feet and bad cheese with a custard like texture and it remains one of the few foods that he will not eat - or try but spit out.
Because the smell of the fruit can be so offensive, in Singapore there are signs on the subway that show a drawing of a durian inside a red circle with a line through it: no durians.
Both I and the husband are somewhat adventurous when it comes to food, and have been wanting to try the fruit. By accident, we stumbled upon a very large Chinese supermarket near us. Instinctively we veered, past a variety of fish and live carp emanating a delicious fresh fish smell, past steamed shrimp dumpling samples, past a whole aisle of intriguing sauces with labels I wish I could read, towards the sizable produce section. And then, there it was. The Durian.
To the strange stares of the store clerks, and knowing all of the above beforehand (and for that very reason), we bought it. I resolved to keep an open mind until I tried it.
At home as it sat on the counter I bent towards it, my nose dangerously close to the spines, and took a good long whiff. It smelled like it has been in the food store - it smelled of random produce. Up close, it smelled faintly nutty and a bit melony - like an unopened cantaloupe. As it rested on our kitchen counter for several hours, it progressively got more fragrant, a few feet away it smelled like a pineapple just at the end of ripeness, threatening to rot in a day or two, with a combination of dried cranberries.
Of course, that was when it was still inside the husk.
The durian can be eaten raw - it should be sliced in half and then quartered, and the edible whitish-yellow soft flesh spooned out from the husk. The (somewhat poisonous when raw) seeds should be discarded.
As we began cutting it open with a sharp knife and an oven mitt, I instinctively turned towards the stove to make sure the gas was off, because the smell of natural gas (which contains sulfur) was getting stronger and stronger. I alerted the husband who looked at me and said "it's the durian!"
When we split it into two halves it smelled like natural gas, cooked eggs, and roasted meat that has sat in the heat for a tad too long. But once one got past the sulfur compound smells (which are in natural gas, eggs, and rotting meat), I could detect hints of random fruit and over-ripe melon. Mostly it smelled like someone left the gas on the stove (natural gas is actually odorless, the sulfur compounds are added to it to alert people if there is a leak).
The taste is more complex than simply saying it tastes like any one thing, which makes durian so unique. Once I tasted it, the first thing that came to mind mind was that I was eating over-cooked, mushy unseasoned onions. On my second bite, there was hint of sweetness once one got past the onion smell like eating the gooey portion of an over-ripe melon that surrounds the seeds. On my third bite, I was overwhelmed by the almost-sickening sweetness of it. It was as if someone made a delicious sweet eggy pastry cream or custard, and then added cooked onions into it. On my fourth bite I detected roasted meat. The onion-like taste was probably the strongest of all the other flavors, and kept fading in and out with every bite. Altogether I ate about one tablespoon of it, it was as much as I could take.
If someone had blindfolded me and shoved it into my mouth, I would say I was eating juices from roasted meat with lots of mushy onions, except where is the melon coming from and why is it soft and cold?
Husband notes that on his first bite there was an overwhelming sulfurous sensation. It was soft, but parts were stringy. On the second bite he detected "custardy, fatty, somewhat meaty melon." Surprisingly he managed to eat much more of it than I did.
I think each of us would give it a second chance. We didn't enjoy it as one would a familiar fruit, but at the same time we were able to appreciate its complexity. I would say for an adventurous novice it is best savored in moderation. Those with delicate Western palates would likely regret trying a sample. As a side note, after we took out what was left of it outside to the trash and cleaned everything up, the kitchen smelled like someone farted in it.