I smelled it first. I imagine this is always the manner in which a durian introduces itself. It waits until you’ve said, “My God, did someone die?” And then you turn the corner and the realization occurs. That scent of rot is coming from an allegedly edible thing, and people hypnotized by the noxious odor are gathering to buy and consume this beastly bit of produce.
As some of you may recall, I was looking forward to jumping in headfirst and having my first bite of durian. Well, durian bites back. I guffawed at the famous nauseating smell, which is often compared to onions, sticky cheese or decay, but after tasting a durian, its stench is forever imprinted onto your soul. Despite the fact that every instinct told me not to, I went ahead and bought a couple pieces of the stuff to call my own. A man was cutting them fresh. I watched as he expertly hacked away at the spiky, prehistoric-looking orbs.
Looking something like oversized burs, there is something unquestionably intriguing about them. With bright yellow flesh and a knobby rind, they are the pineapple’s evil counterpart – A fruit family member that went terribly wrong.
But, I put my faith in numbers, reassuring myself that people here love durian. How could the construct of my palate be that different from theirs? Undoubtedly, durian must possess an incredible flavor that compensates for the smell. They are coveted here. An enormous percentage of the population here loves them. I’ve seen durian candies and durian cakes and, according to Harold McGee’s, On Food and Cooking, it can also be found fermented, “to make it even stronger-tasting.”
I only took the tiniest of bites. The fruit’s flesh squished between my index finger and thumb as I brought it to my pursed lips, finding my facial reaction impossible to control in the presence of such a stench.
When I went to the National Museum of Singapore, I saw paintings of durians that European explorers had created to catalog the region’s plant and animal life. I wondered if those guys knew what they were getting themselves into. I wondered if they made the same face that I did after biting into the durian’s flesh. I wondered if their eyes also watered as they too suppressed their reflex to gag.
My mouth wondered what it had done wrong that I was punishing it in this way.
Any sweetness the fruit possessed was overpowered by the distinct flavor of meaty, rot. The word “putrefaction” comes to mind. I wondered if I might have been better off with a nice bowl of compost.
And the flavor wouldn’t leave. Neither beer nor curry could cure my condition.
Yet, they are everywhere in Singapore (except where they are banned) and wherever I go, the smell lurks around corners, triggering memories of its slimy, mouth-coating, custard-like texture.
A local woman equated my durian experience with her experience eating blue cheese. While the western world covets the pungent flavor of moldy, stinky cheeses, here in Asia, many find it repulsive. Even when just speaking the words, “blue cheese,” her nose scrunched up with dislike. They are acquired tastes – flavors that we grew up with and love- and while I don’t see myself biting into a durian again anytime soon, I’m very glad I gave it a try. Why do we travel, if not to expand and challenge our perceptions of the world?