Ode to the Durian

In Food, Vietnam by Nick2 Comments

There’s a stink in the air. A breath of something floral and pungent. Just a whiff, escaping from an alley like a sigh of overripe bananas and rancid onions leaking from an open crypt. And just like that, it’s gone—from your nose, but not your memory.

The scent molecules infiltrate your olfactory nerve, rewiring your brain as it attempts to rationalize what the hell just entered your body.

Is it an infectious disease, airborne and deadly on the smoke of a nearby charcoal grill?

Is it a gas attack from Chinese saboteurs, leaking a strange mix of paint thinner and cupcakes from the sewer grate beneath you?

Is it a shank of rotting beef, slathered in honey, decaying in a derelict market stall beneath a cloud of flies?

No, bitch. It’s durian season.

Does Durian Stink?

That, my friend, depends on who you ask. The smell and taste of durian have been described by western travelers to Asia as both heaven and hell, a polarizing culinary force the likes of which the world has never seen before.

Durian Data
Durians are native to Indonesia, Malaysia, and Soviet chemical weapons laboratories.

Durian is banned on public transportation in some Asian countries. Durian is banned in some hotels in Saigon. Durian may be banned in your very own home.

And why? Because some misinformed, uneducated barbarians think durians stink. Well, I’m drawing a line in the sand. You’re either with durian, or you’re against durian.

On first tasting it I thought it like the flesh of some animal in a state of putrefaction.Henri Mouhot

You can probably tell I’m on Team Durian.

Yes, durian is certainly pungent. But can’t something be pungent without stinking?

Many people disagree. In my opinion, durian smells like a mixture of every tropical fruit you’ve ever heard of—pineapples, bananas, mangos, jackfruit—and a little extra. The smell is so strange, I can only describe it as excessive.

But like bad alcohol, durian also has an aftertaste—and an ‘aftersmell.’

Immediately after the shot of fruit medley fades in your nostrils, you’re left with durian’s fiery, pungent chaser—what we’ll lovingly call ‘candied onions.’

Others might call it ‘eau de dead animal’ or ‘coffin air.’

Those people are entitled to their opinions, but they’re wrong.

When durian season rolls into town, Saigon’s big markets and side street bazaars are packed to the brim with these spiky munitions-grade clusters of controversy—dangerous pyramidal heaps of them, some much bigger than your head.

Its odor is best described as pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock. It can be smelled from yards away.Richard Sterling

Usually the fruit seller displays a lone durian cracked open for buyers to see. But the only real way to check a durian’s ripeness is to bury your face in its sea of spines and inhale like a running back huffing an oxygen mask in double overtime.

Driving through the city in the summer, you’re struck with the faint but piercing smell of ripe durian every few streets. It cuts through the reek of of exhaust, sewers, and stale city air.

You can’t see it, but durian is always there, watching from the shadows.

But we’re not here to look at durians or smell durians. We’re here to eat them.

How Does Durian Taste?

Durian is known throughout Asia as ‘The King of Fruit.’ But to eat a durian, first you have to remove his crown.

Durian are actually pretty easy to eat. Using a knife as a wedge, it’s simple to crack open the fruit and break the clusters apart, each of which contains 1-3 enormous seeds surrounded by a creamy, custard-like gob of flesh.

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.Anthony Bourdain

Yes, that’s right. I’m comparing the flavor of durians to pastries.

Imagine the sweetest, custardy tart you’ve ever had. Now imagine that tart had a very slight but noticeable oniony aftertaste. But the initial mouthful is just so delicious, you don’t care that your breath smells like a Greek salad when you’re finished.

This is durian. If the king of fruit sounds like a confused mess of flavors, you’re not entirely wrong. But you are misguided, and now’s the time to jump on the Durian Express.

Durian Delight, Day or Night

Durian isn’t just eaten raw by the mentally ill. It’s also enjoyed as a dessert with sticky rice, mixed into smoothies, and baked into tarts and pastries for the ultimate indulgence.

Baking sort of tempers the wild stink. Mostly.

Durian Data
Durian flesh is often eaten as an aphrodisiac. That’s not a joke.

The presence of durian pastries in Vietnamese bakeries also presents the opportunity for a fun game you can play on vacation called ‘Pariah Roulette.’

You’ll see a shelf of similar-looking tarts, colored with pastel icing. Each of these tarts contains a different filling—durian, coconut, mung bean, human fingers, et cetera. Your group of friends should each buy one of these tarts and divvy them up. Then, each of you take a huge bite.

The loser is stuck with durian breath for the rest of your trip. Punish the loser by making him or her sit alone when you eat dinner, and exclude them from all future group pictures.

Durian Data
50 chemical compounds are responsible for the unique durian aroma. Individually, these range from burnt rubber to honey, roasted almonds to onions, and are found in other items as varied as yeast extract and dried squid.

Anyway, I hope you’ve learned a little something about the best fruit you’ve never tried.

Yes, maybe half of the people who try durian will need therapy. But the other half will find a new favorite food, and isn’t that worth it?

I’m almost certain genetics is to blame for the durian divide. But my question is, does a genetic mutation make some people hate durians? Or are durian-lovers the deviants with damaged DNA?

I’ll leave this one to science. I’m going to keep shoveling down durian—the only thing my dog loves sniffing more than her own asshole.


  1. Beth

    Yes banned from my home! And you forgot to list in your description the smell of a permanent wave.

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