nature most foul
July 07, 2002

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Durian2

In anticipation of our trip to French Laundry at the end of August, Rebecca and I watched the episode of A Cook's Tour where Tony Bourdain goes there. Before he makes the trip up to Youtville, however, he tools around San Francisco a bit, going to Polly Ann's, a famous San Francisco ice cream parlor, where he tries their durian-flavored ice cream.

For those of you unfamiliar with durian, it's an unusual fruit from the far east.  It looks like this:

Durian is widely known for its incredible stench.  In places where it is popular, you will find signs prohibiting you from bringing it into restaurants, on busses, or on airplanes. This fruit stinks so bad that whole countries have crafted legislation banning its consumption in public.

Why do people eat it?  Supposedly, despite the odor, it has a wonderful, transcendent texture and flavor.  Devotees of the fruit are often quite zealous in their search for converts, believing the durian to be the "King of Fruits".

I didn't think I could do the smell justice, so I've culled several descriptions from the web and other sources:


"The durian's smell is its outstanding feature-it is pungent, a bit like a clogged drain or rotten eggs." -- Financial Express

"Judging by the fruit's smell, its flesh could just as well be a deadly poison." -- durian.net

"To eat it seems to be the sacrifice of self-respect." -- 19th Century American Journalist Bayard Taylor

"On first tasting it I thought it like the flesh of some animal in a state of putrefaction." -- 19th Century French naturalist Henri Mouhot

"It has been likened to rotting onions, unwashed socks and even carrion in custard, but the most accurate description by far is that of a sewer full of rotting pineapples." -- h2g2

"Try leaving cheese and a dead body out in the sun and you're in the same neighborhood as the smell of durian." -- Tony Bourdain


When I lived in Texas, I worked with a guy from Singapore who loved durian.  He'd occasionally get people in the department to try it, spiriting them away to some undisclosed location -- probably outside -- to partake. Most would come back with a shell-shocked look on their face, wondering if there was some culinary harassment law on the books they could sue under, or whether perhaps criminal prosecution was in order:  reckless endangerment, perhaps?  Occasionally a person would claim to actually have enjoyed the experience, but it was invariably someone of dubious moral character, and if we didn't think so before, then we certainly suspected it afterward.

I was never so foolish as to fall into that trap.  I'd seen the wild-eyed, desperate, my-god-get-it-out-of-me looks on people's faces that had come back from trying the world's most foul fruit.  My one and only experience with durian was this:

I was hosting a party at the largish house in suburban Dallas that I rented with some friends.  The party gathered momentum early in the evening -- around 10ish -- and promised to be a long-running good time.  About fifty people had shown up so far.  One of those people was an Asian co-worker of mine who was, it happens, also an evangelcal durian lover.  And he brought two sticks of frozen durian to the party.  I should have taken a cue from the fact that, unlike any other frozen fruit, these came hermetically sealed and vacuum-packed. He cut them open -- in the kitchen, mind you, away from the bulk of the attendees -- and within five  minutes the entire house had been cleared of people.  The entire party had relocated to the front lawn in order to escape the stench.

As you might expect, this killed the party's energy, which, as we all know, decays in proportion to the square of the distance from food and beer.  This may explain my antipathy toward this satanic "fruit".

Anyway, as I was saying, we were watching the Cook's Tour episode in which Tony eats fifteen or twenty different kinds of ice cream at Polly Ann's, and Rebecca says to me, "hey, let's go out there and get some ice cream," and I didn't have anything to do but avoid getting work done, so I said sure, what the hell.

Polly Ann's is in the Sunset, which if you haven't spent much time in this area, is a large, quiet, suburban neighborhood on the western side of San Francisco. The houses are all crammed together, built in exactly the same style.  Imagine this multiplied by a million:

Sunset

Rows of these houses stretch on for miles, out toward the Pacific Ocean.  The Sunset has a desolate, almost postapocalyptic feel.  It's densely packed with cars and houses, but there aren't a lot of people out walking around.  Just empty streets packed with houses that all look the same.

Fortunately for us, the N (light rail) goes within three blocks of Polly Ann's.  We were there in less than a half an hour.

Polly Ann boasts a huge list of flavors.  I'm not sure exactly how many, but it's more than fifty.  Deciding which we should try was not easy, especially given how divergent our tastes can be.  We wanted to try a few different ones, and try flavors that we don't normally get.  We settled on Turkish Coffee (a concession to safety), Red Bean, Taro Root, and hmmm... what else...

"Durian?" Rebecca asked.

Well, sure.  Perhaps my memories had unfairly maligned the durian fruit.  It's been five years or more since my last encounter with it, and maybe I've blown things out of proportion.  I mean, how bad could it be, really? Perhaps it was an opportunity for rapprochement, for reconciliation.  And after all, Tony Bourdain seemed to like it; I should at least give it a second chance.

As soon as it was set on the counter I knew I'd made a mistake.  It even didn't have a chance to seduce me  with its innocent, pale neon green color, as the scent reached my nose before the light found its way to my eyes. Everything they say about the smell is true, and then some.  Definite rotting flesh odors, and I'd mix in fifteen or twenty rotting onions and a touch of sulphur to the mix.

I wasn't sure I'd be able to choke any of it down, but hey, I'd come this far -- no turning back now.  I quickly learned that the best way to eat durian ice cream is to take a deep breath before you bring the spoon near you, then to exhale slowly, in a very controlled fashion, while you roll the ice cream around your tongue.  This is important, because if you can smell this fruit, you can't taste anything .

Bourdain says that durian has a "smoky camembert avocado flavor". I'm not sure I would use such positive terms, but okay, I can see that.  I can see why someone might like it -- if it didn't smell like the musty crotch of Satan himself.

I didn't eat more than a quarter of the scoop before I just couldn't do anymore.  I just couldn't handle it.

Surprisingly, Rebecca at more than I did -- maybe a third of the scoop or more.  We threw the rest away in a trash can on the street, not knowing if special disposal procedures were required.

At this point, we were both a bit exhilarated.  We'd eaten durian -- well, durian ice cream, anyhow -- and lived to blog about it!  It's all over and we'd survived!

But I'm going to let you in on a little secret -- one which the pro-durian forces labor to keep under wraps.  You won't see this in any of their literature, and their representatives will greet your inquiries about this with bad breath and stony silence.  The secret?  You're not done once you've eaten the durian.  You've only just begun.  You'll be burping up durian for hours afterward.  And the stench of each burp is just as bad as a whiff of the original fruit.

I feel very sorry for the people on the train with us as we rode home.  They did not deserve to smell the fruit of our hubris and I extend my most humble apologies. Even so, I must say that things were much worse for us than for them.  It's a lot harder to avoid the smell when it's coming from within.

We tried eating strong-smelling candy, stinky cheese, pate, and many other things in an effort to combat the smell or dilute the concentration of durian in our stomachs.  This strategy was eventually successful for me; after dinner -- three hours later -- I was able to burp without consequence. Rebecca was not as fortunate.  She continued have durian- tainted belches (which I was able to smell five feet away) five or six hours after ingestion.

I'm not trying to persuade you one way or another regarding the disgusting durian fruit.  I'm just offering an objective account of my own experience.  Try it if you want.  Just make sure you have all of the facts.

Read another person's durian experience here.

July 7, 2002 in best, old_site | Permalink

Comments

I just left Singapore yesterday and had the opportunity to smell and taste durian. The best description I heard was "It's like a baby sh**ing in your mouth!"

Posted by: Nick at Feb 27, 2005 6:57:17 PM

That's disgusting! I mean hilarious...I mean disgusting. Hilarious.

Posted by: Orion at Feb 28, 2005 10:13:48 AM

I saw the fruit in a store and had never heard of it before. I asked the clerk what it was like, and he didn't know, but a Singaporan lady garciously explained to me that it was a great treat in her country, but had a strange smell that she thought would turn Westerners off. I asked her what it smelled like, and she said "Like you hadn't cleaned the cat's litter box for the past year." I passed.

Posted by: Rodeodoc at Mar 6, 2005 6:02:36 PM

My first encounter with Durian was in Vietnam. I was in a very nice galleria and being a warm day I decided to buy some icecream. I picked strawberry and some other flavor, and then I noticed Durian. Having never before encountered it, I wanted one big juicy ball of Durian on my icecream.

The vendor, a lady in her middle years started wiggling a finger indicating "No, no". I was going "yes, yes" as much as I could due to the language barrier. She then took out one of the small spoons you use to, well in most cases gobble up your icecream and handed one to me with a tiny bit of durianicecream.
I put it in my mouth and it immediatly expanded to become some mucuous phlegmy bubbly thing filling my entire mouth. The taste I cannot remember at the time as I kind of entered some catatonic shock state.

I tried frenetically to locate some kind of bin to spit the crap out, but there was none to be found. Finally I used a bunch of paper napkins to get rid of it.

My second encounter with Durian occurred in Cambodia where i smelled it for the first time. My description of the smell is somewhat like the rest...the day after you have spent a long night out getting into a stupor and the day after when you go to the toilet and get rid of one ounce of old rotten spirit soaked sour poo. Dont flush, put whole head inside the toilet and take a deep breath and you'll have Durian. I seriously doubt it's anything for Lancôme but who knows.

My third and final encounter with Durian, which I hope to be the last ever in my whole life so help me god and every other mythological figure in the past, present and future occurred in Malaysia.

In twin towers at the basement you got this pastry named "The Durian Shoppe" I decided to take one more test. So bought a small, soft cake with Durian filling; it looked like the whipped cream/vanilla filling you normally get in soft cakes.

Me and a friend split the cake in half and decided to gobble the whole cake up in one bite. Behind the counter were two vendors, a male and female who were smiling and holding my camera to get a picture of us eating the cake.

I take the cake put it into the mouth, the vile thing shook my whole body so badly that i just puked over the whole table. Needless to say no picture was taken as everyone in the shop was laughing so hard they were crying.

Now, beleve me, I really hate this thing beyond measure. :)

Posted by: Vulpes at Jul 25, 2005 2:46:38 AM

Pleased to report that after a nearly 2 year closure of their retail location Polly Ann Ice Cream is open at the Northeast corner of 39th Avenue and Noriega Street, several yards from their original location. Celebrating their 50th Anniversary Polly Ann now boasts a collection of over 500 flavors, including the ever popular Durian, along with chocolate covered bananas and flavorful ice bars. The updated and expanded location now offers customer seating and the hours have changed slightly to everyday from 11:00 am until 10:00 pm.

Posted by: John Frank at Jul 27, 2005 12:14:24 PM

Ahhhh...yummmy Durians! The best durians must be ripen on the tree and sold mostly to the locals.. NOT for export market. Most exported species found in Asian markets abroad are Thai Durians which are sold as unripe fruit.

Had some yesterday and still some left in the fridge hehehe! I bought some Durian Ganja, Red Prawn and Durian Ice-Cream (that's what the seller called the fruit's name, NOT the ice cream/glacé/gelato) with my Japanese friends who are crazy of durians. Also, some of my European friends-at first they kinda dislike the taste (and smell) but minutes later, I have to fight with them for my share! They said if they like cheese, they sure like durians... hmmmmm

Oh, btw i'm typing from Penang, Malaysia... Soon there'll be Mangosteen, Rambutans, Langsat... mmmm which durian i'm going to attack next? ;-)

Posted by: pixen at Aug 14, 2006 10:44:18 AM

yeah... if you could handle a stinky cheese, a durian would actually be much easier on you. :D Maybe you didn't get to taste the delicious ripe ones. I'm a Malaysia bt the way. I like durians, but I can't take too much of it, because it will warm up my body (and in 'summery' Malaysian climate, I don't quite want to add on the humidity I'm already experiencing daily) and by 'too much', I meant the whole fruit.
So, half of the fruit would be okay to me :D
Look for Malaysian durians for the best taste.

Posted by: syaz at May 6, 2007 7:25:19 PM

omg. u're missing out. durian is love. :)

Posted by: julsz at Jun 26, 2007 10:05:56 PM

Yesterday, me and my friend found a durian at the Asian market. We decided to eat it outside, because we had been told that the smell was bad. So, we sliced it outside, and the smell was the worst thing I have ever smelled. It was like a combination of vomit, onions, gasoline, and rotten meat. We decided to actually eat it, and the taste was worse than the smell. It was the grossest thing I have ever eaten. I was also having the durian burps, which cleared out a crowded room.

Posted by: Amina at Feb 22, 2009 2:49:40 PM

Hey, some ppl like it and some don't.
Even though I am not a fan, it does taste good in durian puffs.
And also, I am not sure whether ppl know that durians have different levels of quality?
D24 is the one durian that I would say worthy of the title "king of fruits".
It beats all the other ones. Trust me. That is y they are usually the most expensive.
Like over 20 bucks in Singapore.
And only idiots eat durian and drink beer at the same time.
I would advise u to just stick to water to down the sweetness.
Or if u are counteracting "heatiness", then I advise u to drink coffee.

Posted by: Clara at Jul 17, 2009 8:25:50 AM

I've never had such an aversion to the flavor of durian... as durian is to Asian culture, so is blue cheese to Europeans. Blue cheese certainly has much worse an odor, to my nostrils. Yet, the odor of durian is but an part of the durian's flavor -it's smell and taste are equally overwhelming. It would do a person best not to smell durian too much before tasting. First impressions will not lead to productive relationships - you friend was wrong to introduce durian in the way that they did. It requires subtlety. Just bringing it to a party is quite oblivious.

Posted by: Timothy at Jul 10, 2011 9:25:51 PM

I remember Anthony Bourdain put it this way- "Your breath will smell as if you'd been French-kissing your dead grandmother." Eh, but the taste itself is worth that hour-long bad breath.

Posted by: dentist kansas city at Dec 4, 2011 11:50:03 PM

I personally don't like the smell of Durian but I surely love its taste. Mmm.

Posted by: dentist at Apr 11, 2012 11:58:54 AM