Before I could see him I could smell him. His smell preceded him by a whole 20 yards. His reputation by 20 miles. It was an unmistakable smell. There IS durian here!
Travelling through Malaysia in autumn, I’d heard rumours that he had departed for the season, to be found sunbathing only in warmer climes. That he was only available in the summer. Thankfully, that turned out to be untrue.
While walking along a dark stretch of Cameron Highlands’ main road there stood a lone durian vendor, lit by his small light, half a block away from the market where all the other fruit sellers congregated. An outcast banished to the fringes for selling this otherworldly fruit.
The king of fruit
Where durians live they are sold, but you don’t see them nearly as often as their posh cousin, mango, or popular neighbour, banana, because there’s just not as many of them. Unlike the aforementioned fruit, they’re not of mass appeal. There’s a limited supply and limited demand. But for those who demand them, they demand them.
When you see durian for sale they’re usually sold by durian specialists who only deal in durian. Whether that’s because the mainstream fruit seller doesn’t have the specialized equipment, strength or fortitude to handle the durian or they just don’t want to deal with the stink, I’m not quite sure.
Enclosed in a spiky suit of armour, this fruit looks more like something you’d see on a medieval battlefield than a fruit stand (in Malaysia and Indonesia the word “duri” means spike). And with its morningstar-like spikes, hefty weight (usually two to nine pounds [one to four kilos]) and hard shell it doubles as a rather effective weapon. So it’s no wonder the other fruit sellers are scared of him.
I sniffed the “king of fruit” for the stinkiest one I could find, the smell an indicator of how ripe it is. Nazirin, the durian seller, picked out a good one for me. “This one is good,” he reassured me as he gave it a deep whiff. Wearing a black beret and standing there on his lonesome surrounded only by his durian, he gave the impression of one who doesn’t just know his craft, but is a true aficionado. Someone who lives and breathes durian, literally. His blue van is parked beside the stand, sliding door wide open to air out the vehicle that transports this stinky fruit. With so many durian living in this van I don’t know how many people would want to ride with him. He must be immune to the smell.
Putting on his durian glove he proceeded to chop the funky fruit in half, carefully handling it to avoid getting poked by the spikes.
All about durian
As I ate, I asked him to clarify the rumours about the durian season being over. “Durian in each state in Malaysia has different growing seasons so you can get it year round,” he told me. Year-round durian—this country gets better the more I get to know it!
Penang, an island in Malaysia’s northwest coast, has some of the best durian in the world. Home to the durian festival every summer you can try more than 18 different varieties, including the prized Musang King, which sells for double the already expensive price of most durian, prompting unethical durian sellers to pass off lesser varieties as being the King.
Requiring a mean daily temperature of 72 F (22 C) or above for it to grow, the durian is not widespread. It’s native to Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei (with some debate about it being native to the Philippines), but is now grown in several other countries including, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, India, Madagascar, southern China, northern Australia, Papua New Guinea and the Polynesian Islands in the eastern hemisphere and Florida, West Indies and Hawaii in the western hemisphere.
Despite only being grown in a select few countries, it’s exported all over the world, with Thailand as the main exporter. Varieties have been cultivated that ripen more slowly (and don’t stink) so that they can be transported long distances (and don’t give their handlers headaches).
Durian season is at its peak in the summer, which is when you’ll find them at their best, cheapest and when you’ll have the most variety to choose from. It’s an expensive fruit. Expect to pay about $2 to $5 USD per pound ($4 to $10 per kg) on average. And since the shell makes up three-quarters or more of the weight, you’re actually paying much more per pound than for what you can actually eat.
Smells like hell but tastes like heaven
One comment about durian is that it “smells like hell but tastes like heaven.” I agree with the second part of that statement, but am not so sure about the first. As I muzzled down my durian I inhaled that wild aroma and the more I inhaled it the more I came to like it. The smell I’m talking about, not just the taste.
My current appreciation of durian is far different from my first experience of it. While in Sri Lanka a few years ago I half wanted to puke as I hesitantly nibbled away at it, the weird texture and equally weird smell overpowering my senses, where now I confidently munch it down with joy.
The smell is what makes this member of the Durio family controversial. It’s so powerful it can give you a headache. I learned that the hard way when I left the shell of a durian I’d eaten at night in my windowless room and woke up the next morning feeling like someone was slamming a sledgehammer into my skull. The pounding lasted for hours.
No one can accuse the durian of not making an impression. The thing is: smell is subjective. Some people like the smell, some don’t. You can come across certain varieties of durian that don’t smell so bad or barely smell at all. Further, one durian is not going to smell nearly as bad as a whole gang of 20 or 30 as you’d see at a fruit stand.
That subjectivity is part of the reason why I’m so put off by the discrimination towards it. Durian is banned in some hotels and buses. They’re discriminated against about as much as cigarettes in Malaysia since you can see signs on the bus that say no smoking, no durian.
Mention the word durian in Southeast Asia and more often than not you’ll get the same reaction: an upturned nose, grimaced face of disgust. It’s as if even the thought of the word hurts people. Yet, to some it’s a cause for celebration, a food so special to get excited about. Two camps divided by fruit.
Part of what makes durian so delightful is the luscious flesh that has a texture unlike any other fruit I’ve tried. The rich, yellow, custard-like smoothness makes it appear to be a sinful dessert, despite being a healthy fruit. It tastes divine when at its peak ripeness. That’s an important thing. It’s why you have to smell it for the stink and then tap it for just that right twang of hollowness. Durian also has a range of tastes based on the variety. There are some durian varieties that are inedible, some that taste OK and some that taste heavenly.
As I walked back to my guesthouse with my durian friend I was a little concerned about being targeted for bringing in this persona non grata. But there was no way I was not going to invite him in. The headstrong righteous side of me just wasn’t going to let this one slip without at least a discussion on the matter.
Turned out the proprietors of my guest house were durian friendly. And I was thankful for that. In fact, it’s a prerequisite for my lodging. I mean, it’s not like I need to travel with durian, but I don’t feel comfortable staying in a place that has that vibe of discrimination. After all, if they were to discriminate against fruit, what next, discrimination against my lodging based on race? Room segregation based on religion? Isolation chambers for vagabonds? Apartment apartheid?
Durian is a complicated thing. Yes, it stinks. Yes, it overpowers. Yes, it has a scary outward appearance and a downright weird (but luscious) inner personality. But that’s what makes it so good—for those who dare to try it.
I was thinking how much durian is like that abrasive jokester friend who wears that protective armour in the form of always cracking obnoxious (but funny) jokes. When you actually spend the time and put in the effort to crack open the shell you realize there’s a whole lot more than what appears on the surface. There’s a good person worth getting to know. That is durian.