Would it be intoxicating or noxious?
That is the question one inevitably faces when dealing with the durian, that spiky, football-size tropical fruit whose notoriously pungent odor provokes only strong reactions: utter disgust or passionate obsession.
Durian is more than just a fruit, you see. It is a polarizing issue, spawning endless, heated debate. To some, it reeks like a sewage tank or rotting onions. Even in Southeast Asia, where the fruit is native, durian is banned on the subway and in public buildings because of its controversial scent. Anthony Bourdain, host of the travel and food show “No Reservations,” declares that durian will make your breath “smell as if you’d been French-kissing your dead grandmother.”
But those who hold the durian sacred describe its aroma in terms of deep caramel tones and hints of vanilla. They talk rapturously of the way it progresses from sweet to bitter and back to sweet in your mouth, where the taste can linger for minutes after each bite.
When I was growing up in Toronto, durian was a rare treat in my family for many reasons: its limited availability after we left Vietnam in 1984, its price and the richness of the fruit. It was always a feast to be shared, not just because the fragrance made it impossible to devour in secret, but also because its consumption involved an elaborate production. Opening a durian requires skill.
Over the centuries, the durian has become a cultural icon, swathed in folklore and mystery. It is purported to be an aphrodisiac; as the Malay saying goes, “When durians fall, sarongs go up.” According to Eastern medicine, durian is a heat-associated food that shouldn’t be consumed in large amounts, so a popular custom is to drink water from the durian husk with a pinch of salt to balance out the heat, or to pair durian with cooler fruits, such as mangosteen. And because of its high fat, sugar and protein content, durian is often the forbidden fruit of the aging or ailing.
Nowadays, the growing popularity of, and controversy around, durian has spread to such areas as northern Australia, Madagascar, Hawaii and Florida. Yet few places honor the fruit as they do in Penang, where the combination of mountains and ocean air has made the island particularly suitable for growing the fruit.
Penang locals frequently scorn the ubiquitous Thai durian, which is often picked for mass exportation before it’s ripe. (Thailand is the largest exporter of durian to countries around the world, including the United States, and even Malaysia when the local durian is out of season.) In Penang, farmers prefer to let the durian fall naturally from the tree when ripe, setting up nets around their orchards to catch the fruit before it hits the ground. Over the decades, local farmers have propagated varieties unique to the island, such as Ang Bak, Red Prawn, Hor Lor and D-11, with flesh color ranging from the most common yellow to white, orange and red.