Durian is probably Southeast Asia’s most famous (or infamous) fruit. Varying in size between a cantaloupe and a watermelon, it looks like a spiky jackfruit. In fact, the name comes from the Bahasa Indonesia/Malay word duri, or thorny. While there are many differences between these two fruits, the most immediately noticeable one is the smell.
Do not mistake this jackfruit for a durian--not that you could!
The smell and taste are completely different.
Durian smells like the bottom of a trashcan. One that has been rotting for months. The smell is pungent, carries, and lingers. In Singapore, a city where durian is the most beloved fruit (their concert hall is shaped like a durian), durian has been deemed so smelly that you can be fined $500 or more for bringing durian into public transport or a hotel. On my 3 hour flight from Aceh to Jakarta this week, someone brought an open durian on the plane, and it was so strong that half of the plane was covering their faces with their shirts or headscarves and looking around for the culprit. The stewardesses had to take the durian and store it in the back, which only mildly helped. Meanwhile, I was giggling and covering my face, too.
An open durian, with segments
But if you can get past the odor, the flesh is creamy and sweet, reminiscent of sweetened condensed milk. It is at once stringy and custardy, almost spreadable. Each segment of the flesh has one large seed.
Most people can’t get past the stench. I’m one of them. I grew up disliking durian; my mother loves durian, and would buy it frozen from the local Asian market. My father and I never let her in the house with it; she had to eat it on the back patio. She loves durian because she grew up with it; her village, Segamat, is famous for its durians.
So when I found myself in Segamat a couple of weeks ago, I knew that I had to hold my nose and try the durian. My uncle drove me to the durian market, where workers were unloading durians from the back of a pickup truck into milk crates. There were several different local varieties, and one of the fruit sellers picked one of each for me to try. I found this wildly ambitious—I can barely eat one piece of durian, let alone several.
As the fruit seller cut them open, he explained how they collect them. My mother had always told me that people die every year from durians falling on their heads. Pretty unfortunate way to go, I think—meeting your demise from a heavy, spiky fruit. When I asked him about this, he said that the durians only fall twice a day—at midnight and at 5 a.m. The durian collectors, wearing helmets, go out to the orchards (they grow on trees) after these times to collect the fruit. They are then brought to the market; some are sold locally, but most are immediately shipped to Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Hong Kong. After all, durian is best when eaten within a couple of days. Here, I had it almost fresh from the tree.
Amazingly, the durians that were opened for me didn’t reek like the durians I had smelled before. Their smell was more subtle, which made it easier for me to try them. And the first variety, which was much smaller than the durians I had seen in the U.S., tasted delicious, like creamy, sugary coffee. The second variety was more similar to what I had tasted before—a sharper, more fruity flavor, with a stronger smell. I didn’t like it much, but ate the whole piece because I didn’t want to waste it. Meanwhile, my uncle was busy packing the segments of durian into Tupperware he had brought with him. I managed to grab another segment of the coffee durian before it was packed away, and then took photographic evidence for my mother. After all, no visit to Segamat would be complete without tasting the local delicacy!