The advice seems intended for challenges that might stir the instinct to flee, but it also works in many situations. In a fractious era when people can often seem unwilling to see things from the other side even once, I think about my experience with a kind of food that, as I discovered years ago, causes its own highly partisan divide.
When I was growing up in Vietnam, there was a fruit that tasted so good, with a fragrance so intense, I loved it from the first time my mother let me have a taste off her finger. I thought it was out of this world. It even looked alien: a small boulder covered with big sharp spikes. In Vietnamese, we call it sau rieng.
In the early 1970s, we were living in Saigon, South Vietnam’s capital, and despite the war, life still went on. Sometimes my mother came home from the market with my favorite treat in her bicycle basket.
When my family was forced to relocate to a rice-farming village after the communist takeover, I was thrilled to discover that we had a sau rieng tree outside our thatched hut. When the wind blew a certain way, I could catch a whiff of it as I went to sleep, dreaming of the sweet, creamy treat.
Sometimes I even forgot that I was hungry. The communist collectivization of farmlands had drastically shrunk the rice harvests — when everyone, regardless of effort, receives the same share of the crop, nobody wants to work hard — so hunger was ever-present.
When the food shortage worsened, crime hit our home and our future prospects darkened, my parents decided to escape Vietnam. We joined the thousands of refugees who became known as the boat people. We were eventually resettled by the U.S. government in a small Texas town, Port Arthur.
In our new home, I was amazed at the abundance, especially food. Chocolate, ice cream, fried chicken — I loved them all. But there were also many foods I couldn’t eat. Pizza, a seeming fixture on my school lunch menu, was the most stomach-churning, with its strong smell of cheese, something I had never eaten. I yearned for the food I grew up with, sau rieng most of all.
One day, I saw a picture of a sau rieng in a magazine. I was excited to read what America thought of the fruit that in English, I learned, is called durian. I was stunned: People who had encountered a durian said they felt nauseated, almost passed out. And that was just from the smell, which they likened to garbage or sewage. Of the few who were brave enough to try durian, all hated it.
In the decades since, I’ve read other articles about durian, each focusing on its vileness. Yet my personal experiences with the people who didn’t grow up eating it couldn’t be more different. My latest encounter was in Singapore, where I temporarily live as an expat — and where the durian is called the king of fruits.
In the summer, durians are piled high at outdoor markets, some already peeled. The wonderful scent, the horrible stench, draws fans and onlookers from afar. Recently I found myself at a stall eyeing a ready-to-eat serving. But I wasn’t hungry enough to eat it all, and taking leftovers with me was not an option because even in Singapore, the king of fruits is banned on trains and buses, along with smoking, pets and flammable goods.
I then noticed someone else looking at the display. He appeared to be a tourist from the United States or Europe. I asked if he wanted to share a container with me. He immediately said yes.
As we sat on plastic stools in a crowded outdoor market, the Italian tourist, as he turned out to be, said he and his friends had tried durian early in their trip. No one liked it, but the vendor insisted they should give it three tries. My durian partner was the only one who followed the advice, and he was hooked.
I told him of other converted Westerners I knew about: my Brooklyn-born husband, his 80-year-old stepmother and the late Anthony Bourdain. Though the famous chef did say that eating durian will leave you smelling like you’ve just French-kissed your dead grandmother.
Sau rieng, durian, the king of fruits certainly warrants three attempts, at least, before giving up. The advice is good for any new food. After years of exposure with my pizza-loving husband and children, I have found, to my surprise, that I think New York pizza is almost out of this world. The only thing that could improve it would be a certain fruit topping.