Wednesday, March 31, 2010

And Now for Something Completely Different: Sampling Durian, "The King of Fruits"



"This pulp is the edible part, and its consistence and flavour are indescribable. A rich custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but there are occasional wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes. Then there is a rich glutinous smoothness in the pulp which nothing else possesses." - Alfred Russel Wallace, naturalist

How many times do you have a chance to sample a food -- actually a natural fruit, not a cooked item--that is completely differnet and out of one's experience.

We were at BAM watching Noah Baumbach's excellent GREENBERG when one of my daughters sent me a text asking whether she should buy a durian fruit which she encountered on her stroll through Chinatown. Why not? The Q train was messed up so we ended up picking our girls up on FOrt Hamilton Parkway in the 60s. She had the durian, which had already been removed from its thick and spiky skin at the greengorcer. She had it in a plastic container in a plastic bag. When we got it home it was left on a table o n the deck in our yard. I decided to give it a try.

To give you an idea:  In-season durians can be found in mainstream Japanese supermarkets while, in the West, they are sold mainly by Asian markets.

Sign forbidding durians on Singapore's Mass Rapid TransitThe unusual flavour and odour of the fruit have prompted many people to express diverse and passionate views ranging from deep appreciation to intense disgust. Writing in 1856, the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace provides a much-quoted description of the flavour of the durian:


“ The five cells are silky-white within, and are filled with a mass of firm, cream-coloured pulp, containing about three seeds each. This pulp is the edible part, and its consistence and flavour are indescribable. A rich custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but there are occasional wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes. Then there is a rich glutinous smoothness in the pulp which nothing else possesses, but which adds to its delicacy. It is neither acid nor sweet nor juicy; yet it wants neither of these qualities, for it is in itself perfect. It produces no nausea or other bad effect, and the more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop. In fact, to eat Durians is a new sensation worth a voyage to the East to experience. ... as producing a food of the most exquisite flavour it is unsurpassed. ”

Perhaps, but how does one even approach sampling a fruit that Wallace cautions that "the smell of the ripe fruit is certainly at first disagreeable",and for which later descriptions by westerners are more graphic. British novelist Anthony Burgess writes that eating durian is "like eating sweet raspberry blancmange in the lavatory." Chef Andrew Zimmern compares the taste to "completely rotten, mushy onions." Anthony Bourdain, a lover of durian, relates his encounter with the fruit as thus: "Its taste can only be described as...indescribable, something you will either love or despise. ...Your breath will smell as if you'd been French-kissing your dead grandmother." Travel and food writer Richard Sterling “ ... its odor is best described as pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock. It can be smelled from yards away. Despite its great local popularity, the raw fruit is forbidden from some establishments such as hotels, subways and airports, including public transportation in Southeast Asia.”

Other comparisons have been made with the civet, sewage, stale vomit, skunk spray and used surgical swabs. The wide range of descriptions for the odour of durian may have a great deal to do with the variability of durian odour itself. Durians from different species or clones can have significantly different aromas; for example, red durian (D. dulcis) has a deep caramel flavour with a turpentine odour while red-fleshed durian (D. graveolens) emits a fragrance of roasted almonds. Among the varieties of D. zibethinus, Thai varieties are sweeter in flavour and less odourous than Malay ones. The degree of ripeness has an effect on the flavour as well. Three scientific analyses of the composition of durian aroma — from 1972, 1980, and 1995 — each found a mix of volatile compounds including esters, ketones, and different sulphur compounds, with no agreement on which may be primarily responsible for the distinctive odour.

My expereicne with Durian: After having a few sips of merlot, I grabbed a pair of chopsticks a nd headed out to the deck, accompanied by my smirking daughter. "Everything smells of  durian!"shekept commenting. I opened the container, trying not to inhale the odor -- uh, er - the aroma of this messy looking fruit.


I picked at it a bit with the chopsticks and considered it carefully. Slimy in appearance,but in the mango or papaya family. Definitely a fruit, not a meat or fungus or seafood. Maneuvering it in the air, I  finally opened  wide and  began chewing on a piece. It was sweetish, a faint citrus, almost refreshing for a moment, with a metallic aftertaste, but shifitng quickly into a very complex, organic flavor. The key here is complex and unlike anything else I had ever eaten. Not disgusting as the commentary suggests but rich, creamy and completely different. Clearly a fruit, but so different to such an extent that it would seem to belong to another class of foods altogether. One that we may not be very comfortable with. Like being at the dentist, having a tooth drilled, and, though you aren't feeling pain, but there is always that anticipation of pain, the durian at first bite doesn't taste awful, just strange, but with the anticipation that after further mastication it could taste just too different to tolerate.

More on Durian here

-- Brooklyn Beat

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