To Tackle a Durian

Durian. The Holy Grail of difficult fruits. A large, spiky, rarely found tropical fruit that grows half way around the earth from my Canadian home. Expensive, rarely imported, and problematic to process. But all of these qualities so endearing to consumers pale in comparison to the greatest hurdle of all — the putrid odor of the fruit once opened.

So knowing that smell is over half of taste, the question moves to a more fundamental level- Why would someone ever decide to eat this fruit? It reminds me of Mark Twain’s observation “The bravest man on earth was the one who first ate a raw oyster”. Yet, other primates, elephants, and birds like flowerpeckers and sunbirds are drawn to the succulence of the fruit when it plummets to the ground and bursts into 5 sections (called locules) each bearing two brownish seeds looking like stumpy monkey toes.

It is a privilege of living near Vancouver to have access to some of the most exotic fresh fruits on earth brought in to an international clientele that longs for the flavors of home. Thus, I have developed a habit of whimsically picking up examples of fruits I have never tried, like jackfruit, dragon fruit, starfruit, guarina, passionfruit, fresh coconut and others. I wrote a lot of that up in an earlier Medium article here:

Still, the mother of them all, the mighty durian, eluded me until yesterday.

I strode into our kitchen like a mighty hunter returning from the fields of SaveOn Foods with my find hoisted high and proud, leaving only a faint odor trail behind me. Today, I did a little internet research on fruit handling and what to expect before taking blade in hand to sever and separate spike from embryonic shielding from seed from accessory custard (the yellow edible part) that looked strikingly like scrambled eggs.

There was a little odor, yes, it stunk a little bit, OK, it landed somewhere between the dumpster behind the fruit stand and an end-of-shift shrimpers boot. Still, not awful to a wildlife biologist accustomed to 3-day old roadkill and iceless coolers seething with decomposing fish. Basically, it is all relative and I have seen worse, lots worse.

Still, I wanted the essence of durian sweetness to have a chance to impress my housemates. I started with the easy sell first to my black Labrador whose middle name should be “Hoover” or maybe “Dyson”. Roxy approached rapidly and with abandon- I mean, this is the dog that relishes carrots, and will even eat onion bits if dropped on the kitchen floor because EVERYTHING dropped there is for humans and thus coveted. At about 18 inches she put on the brakes, dropped her ears, and froze. I have seen her react similarly to snakes and wires she thought might be an electric fence. Basically, her reaction was “Four-letter-growl, NO!”. OK that was honest.

Next, I trimmed a small firm sample on a fork to present to Dearest Wife. Now she is as experimental as they come, a true enthusiast who wants to experience everything at least once. She has wet-suited up to swim the Snake River rapids with me, ridden elephants in India, skidded down mountain bike trails, polar bear swims, been a steady pillion on sliding motorcycle sport riding and sampled Ghost peppers. She doesn’t shy away easily from experiences. Thus, true to form, she popped the durian in and matter-of-factly said, and I quote, “That is not bad but I will never put durian in my mouth again because of the smell.” OK, fair enough. Now she wants me to take out the half full compost pail because the durian carcass is still working in there. Talk about an ingrate!

I can eat it and it is not bad. For newbies I expect it is best in a milkshake or smoothie where the odd custard-like consistency and sweet richness is expected. The mouth feel is foreign and brings to mind a very over-ripened peach with rotten banana overtones. Still, the flavor is sweet and rich — something a hungry long-tailed macaque, squirrel or elephant would happily put up with. The strong odor may well be a long distance attractant. In fact, rotting fruit is a magnet for many species. The painfully spiky exterior makes it hard to access the silky sweetness inside until the fruit decides it “wants” to deliver the goods, then it falls to the ground and shatters into availability. The animals that race away with their portion also carry and disperse the seeds embedded in the sweet fruit parts so the tree has various Johnny Durianseeds planting its progeny a short walk away.

My life is now a tiny bit more complete. I am really holding back from the metaphor-rich experience because it could be compared to meeting inlaws for the first time, a blind date, or a job interview. Remember eating a durian involves anticipating, penetrating the spiky armored exterior, encountering the rewarding taste and enduring the subsequentodious environment.

Durians, not for the faint of heart!



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Lee Foote

Southerner by birth, Northerner by choice, Casual person by nature.