Travel is all about getting out of your comfort zone — and an encounter with the giant, smelly yet sweet durian fruit of Southeast Asia is a test of true culinary commitment.
Cinda Chavich photos
By CINDA CHAVICH
(Penang) - Some travelers visit Malaysia for the adventure – to conquer Mount Kinabulu or hike the jungles of Borneo, among the head-hunting tribes, green vipers and pythons.
My adventure is equally daunting, at least in the realm of the food lover. For I’ve come here, to the steamy jungles of Penang, to conquer my fear of one of the world’s vilest comestibles – the dastardly durian.
This smelly, oversized, football-shaped pod, with its spiky exterior and custard-like centre is legendary in the culinary circles. And like most of the world’s most challenging foods (think raw oysters, sea urchins, haggis), it seems to inspire polarized positions, from great desire to complete disdain.
Durian is definitely in that “love it or loathe it” category, and the balance is fairly solidly tipped to the loathing side of the scale. It’s the durian’s distinctive smell that’s particularly off putting – a putrid aroma described as dead body mingled with dirty socks – a smell that can be so intense, the fruit is banned from most local hotels and airlines.
I’ve read that Sir Stanford Raffle (Singapore’s founder) recommended one hold their nose and “run in the opposite direction” upon encountering a durian. And I’ve seen shock chef Anthony Bourdain lump his culinary encounters with durians right up there with other disgusting dining, like swallowing a still beating snake heart or stir-frying live frogs.
Which is exactly why I am here, at the height of the summer fruit season, to learn to love – or at least understand – the bad boy of the tropical fruit world.
Penang is known as ground zero when it comes to durian, aficionados come here to the roadside stands, high in the hills, where farmers offer several varieties and families gather around tables to sample.
They call the durian the King of Fruits and I’m thinking it might be easiest to slide into the tropical taste genre with the Queen of Fruits, the purple mangosteen, or other novel fruits in the outdoor Chowrasa food market in downtown Georgetown.
Dhahir Hussain guides me around the marketplace, past women flipping thin pancakes for spring rolls and piles of colourful pickles. He separates the sections of dukong, like cloves of garlic with a mild citrusy flavour, and peels the spiky red skin away from a round rambutan, popping out a juicy, eyeball-sized orb of translucent white flesh.
Dhahir picks up the squat mangosteen, like flat purple eggplant with a bright green stem and a pattern of triangular bumps on the base.
“The fruit tells no lies,” he says, counting seven bumps and peeling back the thick skin to reveal seven fleshy segments inside. It’s sweet and exotic, and the aroma is as beguiling as any perfume. Nothing too challenging yet.
Pickled Penang nutmeg has an odd, electric green hue, but the flavour is pleasant, reminiscent of candied ginger. Pulasan, lychee and langsat all pop out of leathery skins with the same kind of refreshing, fibrous fruit, juicy and sweet with a pleasant tropical aroma.
But no durian, not yet.
They sell it at the hawker stalls and on the street, already released from its thorny armour and placed on Styrofoam trays, then wrapped in plastic, like so many anemic lobes of liver.
But I want to taste my durian at the source, or as close to the source as possible. We head out of the city to the Tropical Fruit Farm, 25 acres planted with 300 varieties of fruit-bearing plants. We park near the road and pile into a rickety van that transports us up a steep, narrow path to the farm where we begin our walking tour.
James Low, our guide, points out papaya and cinnamon trees, tamarind and custard apples. Spiky dragon fruit branches spill out of concrete cylinders, the precious pink specimens shrouded in paper to protect them from insects and birds. There are 40 kinds of banana plants.
“This is the durian – smells like hell, tastes like heaven,” Low chirps as I look up to see the massive, spiky fruits hanging in clusters in a gnarly tree overhead.
“Tastes like ice cream, melts in mouth.”
At the end of the tour we gather with other tourists to eat star fruits and red figs, beautiful slices of fuchsia dragon fruit, sweet yellow watermelon, jackfruit, juicy longan and slivers of ripe papaya. It is July and the heart of the three month summer fruit season in Malaysia and there is no better time to sample tropical fruit.
But still there is no durian. I am waiting to try it directly from the farmer who cultivates it up the road. We pull the car into the ditch, alongside two others, and head up to Ah Cheng Lee’s fruit stand. Under a haphazard array of blue and orange plastic tarps, there is a collection of fresh, ripe durians, stacked on the tables, ready to sample. Lee has several varieties, with faded laminated signs that describe each type.
This is prime durian country – the trees in the jungle “orchards” are netted to catch the big fruits at they fall. For you can’t pick a durian. The fruit is only edible when ripe, and it’s only ripe when it drops, sometime around three months after it forms high in the canopy.
Farmers like Lee string nets between the tall trees to catch the precious fruit when it falls. Local indigenous people are paid to walk the forests and collect the fruits. They bring them to collection sites at the side of the single highway, where sellers bring them to market.
Each tree is numbered, it’s fruit tasted and documented. Some durian connoisseurs contract with farmers for all of the fruit from a particular tree, and tour operators offer summer “Durian Packages” for those who simply want to fly in to eat their fill (www.bhaosheng.com).
And the price is steep for the best fruit – up to $5 Cdn per kg, with a typical fruit selling for $15 or more.
I have tasted – and smelled – Durian in Asian markets in Canada but this fruit, just gathered from the forest, is pristinely fresh, with an almost pleasant earthy, musty smell.
Ah Cheng Yee cleaves the big fruit into two pieces, revealing lobes of pale yellow fruit, like a pair of organs nestled inside the spiky shell’s interior cavities. Even with the fruit exposed, the aroma is pungent but not as putrid as I recall – reminiscent of an aged French cheese, with a whiff of garlic and sweet caramelized onion.
It’s still a challenge to put something that smells so oddly unclean in your mouth, but we do, savouring the durian’s unctuous, fatty character. It’s smooth and creamy, like an avocado with its high natural fat content and soft stringy flesh. There’s no elegant way to do it – just suck the gooey sweet mess from the big pits, smile and try it again.
There are reports that people have dropped dead from over-indulging in durian. They warn people with high blood pressure to consume carefully. And it’s bad, they say, to eat durian while drinking alcohol.
I’m not sure why all of this folk wisdom is true, but I now know about the durian’s addictive allure.
Don’t eat too much – but do come to the jungles of Penang to indulge.
Copyright Cinda Chavich