JAKARTA, Indonesia — Many years ago, an aging king wasn’t loved by his young bride. So he went to see a hermit. The hermit sent the king on an epic journey to collect various rare and wonderful ingredients and plant them in his garden. The king did as he was told and, not long after, a luscious, fragrant durian tree sprang up.
After tasting its splendid fruit, the young bride immediately fell for the king, and the king threw a big party to celebrate. Unfortunately, he forgot to invite the hermit so the hermit cursed the tree. From that day on, the delicious durian retained its seductive taste, but smelled like a trash dump on a hot summer’s day, and was covered in a shell of nasty spikes.
Slightly more complex versions of this legend can be found across Southeast Asia, but what’s sure is that the stench and spikiness haven’t had the negative effect the hermit intended. The durian is known as the “king of fruits” and is revered throughout the region. It has even become something of a fascination for foreign visitors.
A bit like Britain’s marmite, for most outsiders, durian is a matter of love or hate.
Lindsay, a self-declared durian-obsessive, doesn’t really see what all the controversy is about. “Durian is very easy to love,” argued the 25-year-old from Oregon. She is certainly one of the tropical fruit’s biggest fans. For the past three years, her life has been all about eating and learning about durian. She and her husband have followed the trail of durian and its different varieties across Southeast Asia, including Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, durian’s main producers. Her blog “Year of the durian” (that turned into three years, and a book) is a goldmine of information on the most divisive fruit of all.
“A lot of people are very intimidated by durian but I think it has a lot more to do with its bad rep in the media than with anything particularly wrong with durian,” Lindsay said.
She acknowledges the “prehistoric, spiky dangerous looking” fruit can be disquieting at first. Shaped like a football, entirely covered in a shell of thick, sharp, greenish horns, durian looks like a crazy scientist experimented on a lychee and that something went terribly wrong.
But more than its looks, what makes durian controversial is its smell. If durian is around, you’ll know.
Food writer Richard Sterling has described its smells as “pig shit, turpentine and onions garnished with a dirty gym sock.”
Its pungent odor is acknowledged in Southeast Asia — the fruit is banned on most public transport, and you probably won’t be allowed in a hotel, a taxi or an airplane with a durian in your bag.
You’ll often hear that durian smells like hell but tastes like heaven.
“Yes, I freely admit that when ripe it can smell like a dead animal … But get down to the pale yellow, creamy flesh, and you’ll experience overtones of hazelnut, apricot, caramelized banana and egg custard,” writes The New York Times’ Southeast Asia correspondent.
“Of course everyone loves it. It’s delicious,” says Robi, a durian seller in Jakarta’s Palmera street market. Armed with a vicious-looking machete, he cuts a delicate V in the thorny shell, and peels it back for customers to taste. He says he easily sells 200 durians a day.
Personally, and to my great disappointment, the only overtones I could taste were of rotten onion. And as renowned chef Anthony Bourdain (who actually loves durian) puts it, “your breath will smell as if you’d been French-kissing your dead grandmother.”
It is definitely the superstar fruit of Southeast Asia, and it’d be hard to find someone in the fruit’s native region who doesn’t love durian. It’s unlikely that any other fruit in the world has as many festivals dedicated to it — several every month across the region and even a “World durian festival” and a World durian beauty pageant in Thailand. Beware if you’re planning to try your luck, being pretty is not enough. You have to be able to talk nice about the fruit to be a Miss Durian.
In Indonesia’s Semarang durian festival earlier this month, local farmers fought for “tastiest” and “best looking” durian titles, while proud aficionados entered speed-eating competitions. Organizers say 1,000 attended the festival and that 10,000 durians were sold.
Durian can taste very different according to where it’s from, and how it’s eaten. It’s usually guzzled directly from the shell, but you will also find durian cake, durian pastry, durian sweets, durian coffee, etc. In Indonesia, real durian addicts can even get durian-flavored condoms.
And there is more to durian than its taste. It is believed to be an aphrodisiac — there is an Indonesian saying that goes “when the durian falls, the sarong comes up” — especially if it has passed uncracked through the digestive system of an elephant. Durian could also improve eyesight, but over-consumption might kill you, and every connoisseur will tell you not to drink and durian — that might kill you too.
Lindsay says there is definitely something special about durian.
“If I have too much durian I tend to feel a blush in my cheeks, very similar to if I had something to drink,” she said.
She has met many durian lovers across her travels, and says “pretty much everyone I talk to say they experience some kind of happy feeling” after eating durian.
Maybe that’s what makes it the king of fruits.
“I don’t think you can say the same about a banana. I had a banana when I was in a bad mood and it didn’t do anything,” Lindsay laughs.