Durians are an unusual fruit eaten throughout Southeast Asia and South Asia, They have a creamy texture, an ultra-sweet taste that stays on the tongue for hours and a nasty smell that can linger in the air for days. The famous botanist Alfred Russel Wallace described them as having “a rich butter-like custard...flavored with almonds...onion sauce, brown sherry, and other incongruities." Its scientific name “Durio zibethinus” means “a thorny fruit smelling of civet cat.” [Sources: Rabb Walsh, Natural History, September 1999; Henry Genthe, Smithsonian]

A durian taken from a tree looks like a green rugby ball covered with spikes that turn brown as the fruit ripens. After it is split open with a knife, the husk reveals five interior compartments, each filled with a edible section of fruit that surrounds a large brown seed. The soft edible sections have s glossy look, creamy texture and range in color from pink to pale yellow to orange to white.

Durians can weigh up to 40 pounds. Every year several people are killed when over-ripen versions of these fruit falls on their heads. In the forest durians are fed n by a variety of animals, including orangutans, monkeys, sun bears, mouse deer and even tigers. Some animals eat the seeds within the fruit and deposit with fertilizer.

Thought by many to have aphrodisiac qualities, it is an expensive fruit whose name in Vietnamese means "one's own sorrows." You may wonder why it is called his. The answer lies in a famous Romeo-and-Juliet-like love story. Long ago, there was a young couple that lived in a region where the druit was grown. Because of social prejudices that could not be overcome, the couple sought their own deaths in order to be faithful to each other. Their own sorrows received the population's sympathies, and the story of their tragedy has been handed down from generation to generation. To commemorate the couple, the locals have named one of their most valuable fruits sau rieng. [Source: Sawadee.com]

With a gentle cut between the edges of the outer shell, you can easily open the fruit to expose the layers of bright yellow segments of meat that make the pulp look like it is covered with a thin layer of butter.

According to hotelclub.com: Durian’s roots are unclear, but it’s believed to be indigenous to Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and Borneo. Four hundred years ago, a lively durian trade existed between Lower and Upper Burma, for it was a prized food in the Royal Palace. Durian is sold at road-side stands with the fleshy parts extracted, and wrapped in cling film. Test it to make sure it’s not to firm, and not overly soft. It should feel softer than a ripe mango, but not like pudding. Durian season is around March to July, and tends to be pricier than other Southeast Asian fruits. [Source:http://www.hotelclub.com/blog/10-must-try-exotic-fruits/

“Durian is known to be high in sugar and fat, and thus is why many Southeast Asians say you shouldn’t eat it if you’re on a diet. But actually, durian is high in good fat. It’s also known to be a good blood cleanser, and to contain high levels of tryptophan, which alleviate depression and anxiety, and help insomnia. Since it is relatively high in protein, durian is thought to be a good muscle-builder. Around Asia, durian is also thought to be an aphrodisiac.

Website: www.durianpalace.com ; Durian OnLine.

Smell of Durian

The smell of a durian can be picked up a half mile away and has been compared with sewage, rotten eggs, rotting meat and rotten fish. One botanist described the odor as a blend of decaying onions, turpentine, garlic, Limburger cheese and a spicy resin. Others have said the smell was “an abominable stench,” “a revolting public lavatory” and “reminiscent of rotting vegetables and bad drains.” In Southeast Asia, many people say “they have taste of from heaven and the smell from hell.” Dutch colonist in the East Indies called them “Stinkvrucht” .

Durians are so smelly that many hotels in Southeast Asia ban them. The Mandarin Hilton in Singapore won’t allow them in the building. The Kartika Plaza hotel in Jakarta has the third floor reserved for durian eating. You never see them in restaurants. There are also rules forbidding their consumption on airlines. In Singapore, you can’t even bring them on buses or subways. Signs with the slash through a durian are everywhere.

Local people insist the strong smell indicated it is at the peak of ripeness and sweetness. Many foreigners can’t get over the smell. Some gag when they smell it. Other say its not as bad or strong as it is made out to be. The unopened fruit doesn’t smell so bad. Drop it you get a hint of the smell. Cut it open to experience the smell in its full glory.

The fruit is forbidden in hotels and public transportation in Southeast Asia. The Vietnamese writer Mai Van Tao once wrote: "The dense fragrance which spreads near and far, lingers a long time before disappearing. The strong smell can go straight to your nostrils, even though you are still several meters away from the fruit. The fragrance of Durian is a mixture of smells which come from a ripening jackfruit and that of a shaddock. It can also be compared to the strong smell of foreign-made cheese and is rich as a hen's egg. Others describe the fruit as sweet as well-kept honey. All things considered, Durian has a special tempting smell.Those who have not enjoyed the fruit before may find it hard to eat. But once they have tried it, they are likely to seek it again."

The smell of the durian is produced by the prickly outer rind. The flesh around the seeds has no smell and the taste has little connection to the smell. The odor is caused by strong-smelling sulfides and bisulfides produced by the break down of two sulfur-carrying amino acids by an enzyme that is triggered into action when the ripe fruit hits the ground. Many fruits contain similar compounds but durians possess at least 43 different ones, including ones found in onions and garlic. Not only is the smell bad it is persistent. One reason hotels insist that no durians be brought on the building is that the smell seeps into the ventilation systems and stays there.

Durian Popularity

In Thailand and Malaysia, durians are known as the king of fruit. The durian season in September and October is time of fun, prosperity and contentment. There are durian festivals and special clubs are devoted to the fruit. Growers are happy about their windfall profits. There is even a canon of poetry and riddles devoted to the fruit.

Some Southeast Asian consume durian directly from the husk,. It is sometimes combined with coconut milk and sticky rice for a unique dessert or used to make ice cream or cheesecake. In Singapore and Malaysia, people are fond of a preserved form of the fruit that is even smellier than the fresh variety. Indonesians make soup sauces and relishes with them and serve them like a vegetable. The Japanese sometimes come to Southeast Asia on durian tours.

Durians said to have an intoxicating effect One should not drink alcohol with durian ir drive after eating too many of them. They are regarded as a hot fruit. After eating one people are supposed to eat mangosteens and rambutans to cool off. Durians are thought to have originated in Sumatra or Borneo. They became a lucrative trade item about 400 years when they were a favorite of the Burmese court. The leaves and roots are consumed as remedies for fever, jaundice and worms. The fruits themselves are regarded as an aphrodisiac. . There is an expression in Southeast Asia: “when the durians come down, the sarongs go up.” Many children are reportedly born after the durian season.

In 2007 when the leaders of Singapore (Lee Hsien Loong) and Malaysia (Abdullah Badawi) got together for an informal chat and discussions at the Malaysian resort of Langkawi and has durians for desert at lunch and a snack later in the day the meeting were hailed as “durian diplomacy.” “These are good durians Abdullah joked. The fruit came from his home island of Penang.

Choosing a Durian

Durians are generally not sold in store but are purchased from street vendors. They are not cheap, often selling for $5 or more for one fruit, and are only widely available in the durian season.

Durians are sold with their stems attached to use as handles. The fruit are heavy and the spines are sharp. Customers first shake the fruit and listen for rattles which means that the seed-to-fruit ratio is too high. They then roll the fruit in their hands to gentle release the odor and from that they can determine quality. One with no smell indicates the fruit was harvested to earlyl. Those with an odor that is too garlicky are also rejected.

Durian Online advises: “If you detect a faint aroma of bittersweet butterscotch and almonds with a bouquet if wild honey and a hint of smoked oak, then you have hit the jackpot and found yourself a durian with a thick, creamy treacle-like bittersweet flesh for you to savor and enjoy.”

Foreigners and Durians

Most Westerners can never get past the smell and enjoy durians the way Southeast Asians can. By the same token many Southeast Asians can never get past the smell of some cheeses and enjoy them as Westerners do. Paul Rozin of the University of Pennsylvania, an expert on people’s eating food habits, told Natural History, “Durians and blue cheese both have a rotten smell, which is offensive to most humans. But this aversion is not innate. I believe the disgust comes for a universally acquired aversion that is probably taught in the toilet training process.” He said children are not disgusted by the own feces until they are told its disgusting.

After getting over the initial shock of the smell some Westerns fall in love with durians. The 19th century French naturalist Henri Mouhout wrote: “To enjoy it...one must have time to overcome the disgust at first inspired by its smell. On first tasting I thought it like the flesh of some animal in a state of putrefaction.” Later he became addicted to them.

The 19th-century American journalist Baynard Taylor described it as “at first the most intolerable” or all fruits and “at last, the most indispensable” and wrote:.”When it is brought you cannot sleep. Chloride of lime and disinfectants seem to be its necessary remedy. To eat it, seems to be the sacrifice of self-respect; but endure it for a while, with closed nostrils, taste it once or twice, and you will cry for durians thenceforth.”

Today, Asians find the sight of Westerners sampling durian for the first time to be amusing. Sometimes a small crowd gathers.

Durian Agriculture

Durians grown high in a tall tree that takes up to 15 years to mature before bearing fruit. The fruits come from short-lived pink or yellow flower that are pollinated by fruit bats that drink the nectar. The fruits, which an weigh average of five to 10 pounds, are not plucked from the tree. They are allowed to drop naturally to the ground when they are at the peak of ripeness. Their husk protects then as well as a coconut shell protects a coconut.

Durians tend to fall mainly at night. During the durian season nights are filled with the thud, thud, thud of falling durians. They have to be collected quickly and transported to markets and eaten within several days or the smell becomes too much even for diehard durian lovers. Falling durians also attract monkeys, elephants and wild pigs, who are as anxious to gorge on the fruit as humans.

Most of the world’s durians are grown in Thailand and southern Vietnam. In Thailand, many are grown on large plantations in the Chantaburi region. In Malaysia, they are grown in Penang. Because it is quiet difficult to get the right combination of taste and smell—some of the durian crop in Southeast Asia is harvested in the wild from well-known trees. When a high quality durian tree is discovered it generally becomes the property of the nearest village and people come from miles around to collect fruit from it. As they eat the fruit they throw the seeds in the bush. Using this method over the centuries has created pockets of durian groves all the way from Burma to New Guinea. Seeds from superior wild trees are sold to plantations.

Getting smacked on the head with a durian in no trifling mater. It can be dangerous even fatal. Workers often wear helmets. Tourist walking in a durian area during the harvest season when they drip from trees should take care. Wild animals also help disperse the fruit. Those that eat the fruit with seeds depost the seeds with fertilizer, ideally in a place where it can sprout and grow into a tree.

Durian Marketing

There are more 300 durian cultivars. The three main ones are the fast-growing and early maturing Golden Button, the mid-season Golden Pillow and the late-maturing Matong. The latter is considered the tastiest among connoisseurs. The Golden Button is the most profitable to grow. Most of the cultivars are no longer grown and are products of unsuccessful efforts to develop tasty fruit with a long shelf life on highly productive trees.

Fresh durians have a short shelf life and usually do not make out of Southeast Asia. Frozen durians are widely available at Asian grocery stores in the United States but fresh durians are still hard to come by there. Imported durians don’t survive the required quarantine process very well and durians are not cultivate in the United States although some durian orchards have been started in Hawaii.

Singapore durians have a good reputation because the fruit has a nice flavor and Singaporean suppliers have a good reputation for promptly filling orders. Very few of the Singapore durians, howrver, are grown in Singapore. Odorless cultivars have been developed but they have not been well received in Southeast Asia because local people there like the smell.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2022

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