Big Stink

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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