It’s durian season in Southeast Asia, and that means all you can eat durian for US$3! That’s either the best thing you’ve ever heard of or the worst.
In Southeast Asia, no two durians are alike. Durian in Thailand is not the same as durian in Malaysia. Even durian in Penang is different from durian in Kuala Lumpur.
Not surprisingly, each country talks smack about the other’s fruit. The Malays say the Thais pick the durian from the tree when it’s too green, resulting in what they call mild, almost tasteless durian little flavor and sweetness.
This may be true, but on the other hand, Malaysians prefer their durian practically rotting. They don’t pick them from the tree, instead they let them fall to the ground before collecting them.
I had my first durian in Kuala Lumpur. My Aunt Emme went to one of those durian buffet tents — four or five different vendors in adjoining tents that take up a whole block and wrap around the corner, too. She bought me the best, creamiest and sweetest type of durian she knew of: the Moussan King variety, off the special “not-for-buffet” shelves. At 90 ringits for three or four pieces, that’s some pricey fruit!
We took it back to the house and as soon as we opened the container, the whole house smelled rank. Westerners like to say that durian smells like toe jams, or stinky socks. Some will even go as far as to say that durian smells like a corpse.
As a reporter, I’ve visited municipal morgues in Los Angeles and Hawaii and I can say with certainty that durian does not smell as bad as the puffed up corpses I’ve seen. But it does give off a pungent, rotting-fruit-crossed-with-a-sweet-fart kind of smell. Buses, hotels and apartment buildings often ban people from carrying them in. Imagine no-smoking signs, except with a spiky durian pictured.
In Malaysia, I took my first bite of a durian and it was so fermented, pungent and rich that I thought I was eating raw garlic. That’s how sharp the flavor was, almost bitter. It had a lingering sting. It was hard for me to eat it without making a face. I had Raja take a video of me while I ate my first bite.
By contrast, the Thai durian I tried in Bangkok with another relative, Aunt May, was firm and did not fall apart or stick to my fingers as I ate it. It had a much much milder taste and was almost sweet. I actually enjoyed that experience!
But I can see how Malaysians used to the richness of their native durians wouldn’t like Thai durians. Not enough taste, they’d say, might as well be eating potatoes or underripe bananas.
But for this rookie palate, the Thai durian was easier to take. I helped myself to three or four pips, or sections, each section demarcated by a seed. Afterwards, I had plenty of mangosteen, the supposed “cool” fruit antidote to durian’s “hot” quality.
Other crazy stories my aunties told me about durian in Malaysia: No eating durian with any kind of alcohol. That’s probably because durians in Malaysia are so fermented already that if you add alcohol to it, the fruit ferments even more and makes later burps rather unpleasant. They also insisted that some people had died from eating too much durian with alcohol. I don’t know if that’s true. All I could think of when I heard that was cartoon images of birds exploding in a puff of feathers after eating too much. But hey, who knows.
Here’s a little impromptu video I took of my first durian tasting. I keep using the word “custardy” to describe the texture, but trust me, it was not sweet like custard. Quite the opposite, almost bitter flavor. Check it out: