22 Jun 2009

Durian Season

Love it or hate it, you just can't ignore it - at least, not if you live in Southeast Asia. Durian has hit the streets and aficionados of this controversial fruit are in raptures.

I have never seen fresh durian in Europe which, on the one hand, is surprising as should be very easy to export, yet on the other hand is perfectly understandable as every supermarket would stink of durian all year round! Durian is native to Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia but also grows in the Philippines, Cambodia as well as here in Thailand. It looks like a spiky version of a jackfruit and once opened has large fleshy parts surrounding stones the size of an egg - the colour and sizes depend on the precise variety and country. However, what is controversial is the smell that durian exudes once opened.

The 19th century British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace rather kindly described it as "a rich custard highly flavoured with almonds," although even he had to admit to certain wafts of "onion-sauce". The novelist Anthony Burgess is less complimentary, writing that eating durian is "like eating sweet raspberry blancmange in the lavatory." The overarching stench is often described as like rotten onions, yet to me it smells as if someone has thrown up after eating a crème caramel.

Thais are not immune from the smell but, like many other foods here, they've grown to like it. In spite of the popularity of durian it is banned from most public places such as hotels, trains and buses. I've seen 'No Durian' signs in hotel lifts just in case anybody was thinking of taking one up to their room as a snack. You can, however, get a feel for the fruit's popularity from these articles from Malaysia and Cambodia's The Phnom Penh Post.

Much of what we describe as the flavour of a food is also partly due to its smell - witness our lack of taste when we have a blocked nose. The taste of durian flesh is not unpleasant and it has a thick rich consistency like soft bananas and high calorific content, but it's just not feasible to try and eat it whilst holding one's breath! I've almost got used to it - my stomach doesn't churn at the durian haze enveloping the market - but I'm not about to rush out and buy any as can eat fresh watermelon, pineapples and bananas at a fraction of the price. Maybe one day I'll try some again... just not today.

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