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“Tastes like heaven, smells like hell,” was how durian was first described to me while travelling in Southeast Asia. The fruit has a way of polarizing people. You either despise it or you love it. You can’t be indifferent either way.
Its name derives in part from the Malay word for thorns, “duri,” no doubt referring to the thick thorns that stud its surface. Native to Southeast Asia, durians grow on large trees – gigantic spiky balls hanging off branches that resemble medieval mace weapons. But more impressive than its formidable appearance is the durian’s undeniably distinct odour. Perhaps odour is an understatement. Some would describe it as a stench.
The smell has been described as that of rotten eggs mixed with vomit, raw sewage or rotting garbage. Anthony Bourdain has famously likened it to “French kissing your dead grandmother.”
The smell is so powerful that it can fill a whole building and linger for days. Durians are not allowed in many Asian hotels nor on public transit. No way was I interested in going near this illicit fruit.
All that changed one day, not while I was in Southeast Asia, but in New York. I was on vacation, visiting my maternal aunt (“I-Yee” in Cantonese) who lived in a little apartment off Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. Vivacious and outgoing, she was my favourite aunt. As a child, I remember thinking how glamorous she was, with her red lipstick, glittering earrings and perfectly painted nails. On those childhood visits, she would always give me little bottles of nail polish, perfume and trinkets from her dressing table. My uncle died 10 years ago but I-Yee was fiercely independent and she continued to live in the same apartment they had shared for the past 40 years.
At 88 years old, my aunt was tiny and stooped but still irrepressible in her brightly flowered hat and oversized sunglasses embedded with rhinestones. We had just finished our dim sum lunch in Chinatown and were walking down the street when I caught a whiff of a strong sulphur-like smell, indescribable but at the same time oddly familiar. As we rounded the corner, my aunt gave a sharp gasp. A pickup truck was parked by the road, filled with large spiky durians. A thin man in a straw hat, grey tank top and baggy trousers, skin browned and leathered by years of working in the sun, waved at my aunt as if he knew her. He called out, “Ah Mo, lay seng mai lew ling ma?” Madam, do you want to buy durian?
I took hold of my aunt to steer her away from this dangerous fruit, but she shook off my hand and walked over with excitement. “Yes, pick out a good one for me!” she exclaimed. The man turned and quickly picked one the size and shape of a football, grabbing it by the thick stem with gloved hands to protect against the prickly thorns. He then drew out a knife and adroitly sliced through the tough skin between the spikes, revealing the glistening pale yellow-fleshed pods nestled inside septate compartments.
Opening the durian was like releasing a stink bomb, and the stench rose palpably from the fruit’s innards, making me fall back and hold my nose. But I-Yee eagerly craned her neck forward and inhaled. “Oh, this smells like a delicious one!” The man grunted his agreement and expertly separated and scooped the five slippery bean-shaped pods into a plastic container and secured it in a tightly wrapped plastic bag. I-Yee handed him a $20 bill and said to me, “You’re so lucky. Fresh durians are shipped in for only one week a year in New York!”
Fortunately, New York did not have a law prohibiting durians on public transit and we were able to board the bus without incident. Nevertheless, on the ride back to her apartment, we got some odd looks with people quizzically sniffing the air, frowning, and then quickly turning away. A businessman in a pinstripe suit abruptly vacated his seat shortly after we sat down next to him. No one else sat near us. At one point, I heard a child wail to her mother that the bus smelled bad and she wanted to get off. Happily oblivious, I-Yee hugged her precious purchase and chirped, “I can’t wait to go home and try this delicious durian!”
Back in her apartment, I-Yee bustled about, taking out her finest porcelain dishes and silver spoons, eager for me to try my first taste of her beloved durian. She selected a crystal bowl from the cupboard and ceremoniously slid the slippery pods into it. It seemed so incongruous, these squalid malodorous pods squatting in that dainty vessel, like sweaty, big-bellied construction workers on a delicate damask chaise. Even though I was repulsed by the smell, I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. I asked her to slice off just a small piece. I could see the shiny walnut-coloured seed underneath the cut surface. “There’s plenty more if you change your mind,” she said, and scooped a large mouthful, beaming at the taste.
I gingerly nudged the soft flesh with the edge of my spoon. It yielded gently, much like a perfectly set custard and slipped like a scoop of soft serve ice cream into the spoon’s head. I tasted it tentatively. I was totally unprepared for its deliciously unctuous, rich and creamy sweetness. It was at once silken and toothsome, light and complex, with notes of vanilla, almond, caramel and a dozen other subtle undertones. I took another mouthful, feeling the luscious texture seductively slide over my tongue, then another and another. I was hooked. I finished the rest of the pod and shared the same delighted smile as my aunt.
For me, discovering durian is a little like getting to know a person who, despite an intimidating, bristly, tough exterior, there resides an unexpectedly soft and sweet soul. Durian’s smell, while initially off-putting, has inexplicably turned into an intriguingly musky and mysterious perfume for me. I’ve become hopelessly captivated by the “King of Fruits.” It’s like I have discovered my secret lover. Like my aunt, I, too, have fallen for King Durian.
Anne Wong lives in Hamilton, Ont.