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It's smelly. It's ugly. It can be downright deadly. But for three months a year, millions of Southeast Asians go bananas for a fruit called durian, aka Durio zibethinus, toorian, thurian or just plain 'King of the Fruits.'

Because of its smell-routinely described as rotting meat, possibly human meat-the lumpy oval fruit is banned on most forms of public transportation and not allowed into high-end hotels and many other self-respecting public places. NO DURIAN signs are commonplace. Because of the inch-long, rock-solid, razor-sharp spikes that cover each four- to ten-pound fruit, it is registered as a deadly weapon in Vietnam. But because of its taste-a cross between lus-cious almond custard, rich vanilla ice cream and Zeus' own ambrosia, legend has it-it is consumed and celebrated like no other fruit in the world.

Durian is native to Malaysia, Indonesia (in fact, Jakarta is sometimes called 'The Big Durian') and Thailand. Harvested between April and July, it comes in at least a dozen varieties, from the coveted Golden Pillow-for which the Japanese pay as much as 10,000 yen, or $70, for one imported specimen-to the D-11, which sounds more like an automotive lubricant or a dandruff shampoo than a tropical fruit. Each variety has its own individual smell (varying degrees of gross), texture (varying degrees of squishy) and taste (I'm getting there). And each Thai has his or her own favorite, except for one poor woman I met who eventually admitted that she can't stand the stuff, which is pretty much like admitting you're not fond of air in a country where they don't just eat durian, they worship it.

Last year they even threw a party for it. Between May 31 and June 9, 1998, at the height of the harvest, the Durian World Fair was held in Chanthaburi. Thailand's Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai opened the festivities, which included parades, the construction of an enormous T-rex covered entirely with tons of spiky durian peels, and a beauty contest (for women, not fruit-though I'm not sure how flattered I'd be to be the reigning Miss Durian).

Why the fuss over something that smells like week-old roadkill and looks like a bright green medieval torture device? According to Somphon Nabnian, chef and co-owner of the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School, before the days of mass agriculture durians were rare and expensive. Eating one was considered an elite activity, and that cachet has endured. The offering of durian at Buddhist temples is considered particularly auspicious because of the fruit's cost-up to 100 baht ($2.50) per kilo. The Thais, Somphon adds, also believe that durian is an aphrodisiac. But don't have it with alcohol. Since durian is a 'hot' food 'that produces heat within the body when eaten,' he says, 'Thais believe that if you drink alcohol with it, the combination will suffocate you.'

Durian can be cooked as a dessert or baked into traditional mooncakes. There's also durian ice cream. Enterprising companies have even come out with tubes of durian concentrate paste, tubs of fried durian, durian candy and oven-baked durian chips to get Thais through the off-season. But most people prefer to eat the fruit fresh, raw and, of course, reeking.

I'm not too big to admit to a bit of fear at the prospect of my first taste of durian, but Somphon assured me he'd picked a winner (a good durian should sound hollow when tapped with something hardier than your knuckles). As he macheted open the inch-thick peel at alarmingly close range, I got a whiff of the ghastly waft of Eau de Morgue and quickly put a teaspoonful of the soft, pale yellow flesh into my mouth. I was rewarded with an explosion of the best sweet custard pie filling flavor I've had since Thanksgiving at Grandma's house. Unfortunately, the Thais also believe that, like my grandma's pies, durian is one of the most fattening things you can eat.

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