It happens every year around this time. Something is palpably different in the air—it's thick and dizzyingly sweet. People get a wild look in their eyes, as long lines form on the streets and corners to wait and wait. But for what? What is this phenomenon? A Jay-Z concert? The latest smartphone drop? No. It's durian season in Southeast Asia.
Never has a culture been more excited and willing to do anything for a single fruit—the mysterious and singular durian. The fervor and passion it generates is beyond belief. But for a fruit so revered, it doesn't make itself easy to love.
To start, it's covered with forbidding spikes, like a fearsome medieval weapon. In fact, durian comes from the Malay word for "spikes" or "thorns." To make matters worse, it's nearly impossible to open. Compared to the gentle surrender of a banana, durian's reluctance to yield is Excalibur set in stone. To open it, you have to hack it along the five or so radial spines that are barely perceptible between the spikes. (Locals use a tool that looks a hoe-machete mash-up.) The hacking alone will have you breaking a sweat, but prying it open is like pulling apart the jaws of a sleeping alligator.
Once open, it reveals Styrofoam-like cavities cradling soft, yellow lobes of fruit. Gingerly picking up a lobe, you bite gently into it until you reach its inner seed, and then draw your teeth along it to scrape off the flesh. Its deep-seated appeal immediately hits you over the head. It's pure custard. Soft, sweet and cuddly. The aroma alone is beguiling, a lucid whisper on the tongue. Which brings us to the next part: the smell.
As strongly as it is loved, there's a camp that hates it with an equal passion: based primarily on the smell. I find the scent sweetly intoxicating, but like it or not, the smell doesn't go away quickly—it tends to linger. All over Asia, it is banned in public areas with signs that can seem as ubiquitous as stoplights. The love-hate relationship is part of the appeal; however, it's an ever-present challenge. Sooner or later in Asia, someone will ask you, "Do you like durian?!" Their eyes growing wider, not only for your answer, but in titillating anticipation for the next time they'll devour it.
On a recent trip to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, I spent my first night in Jalan Alor, a sprawling, raucous food market. I was with my friends, Kwan Lui and Alvin Andrean, from the top culinary school in Singapore, At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy, and they were experiencing what I can only call durian fever. We spent nearly an hour going from stall to stall to inspect the various prices and quality. (Pro tip: Never buy at the entrance or exit of the market; their prices will always be higher.) We finally landed at a stall, selected a durian of a variety called Musang King and had them open it in front of us. Alvin, meanwhile, mused about the other cultivars they had on hand, "Oh, wow! They have D40!"
The recently splayed-open durian elicited gasps: the holy grail of perfectly fleshy lobes. After finishing my first piece and setting it down, everyone yelled out, "Ang moh!" which essentially means "foreigner." Like an amateur, I had left too much flesh on the seed. I got back to work, and after polishing off the whole fruit, Alvin poured water into the leftover shells and rubbed them to release their essential oils. We drank from the durian's armor in a move that seemed both ritualistic and a fitting finish to the journey.
Back in Singapore the next week, I had arranged a tasting at At-Sunrice to better understand everything about durian: the taste, texture and appeal. My friend Reei Pyn had searched around to find more than 11 varieties of durian and created a WhatsApp group aptly titled Durian Fever to record her market discoveries. When she brought all the durian to the school, pandemonium ensued. The effect was immediate; students scrambled to see where it was coming from, and they lined up at a classroom window to watch as it was unpacked. Opinions were in full swing. "This one tastes so much like onion, how's that!" "Oh, that one is too old. My grandmother liked XO the best. I've never heard of D13." At the tasting, 15 students—self-described "durian nuts"—sampled all the varieties, giving their tasting notes along the way to form a shorthand guide to some of the major types. Here they are.
Hong Xia (Red Prawn): Sharp sweetness. A little musty. Bitter.
XO: Juicy with no custard texture. Slightly bitter.
D24 (Sultan): Brown caramel. Clean finish.
Black Golden: Fishy. Long finish.
Tai Yuan: Tastes like onions. Creamy.
Xin Fen (Golden Phoenix): Smooth and creamy. Very well balanced.
Musang King: Soft and nutty. Wildly pungent. Slightly grainy.
Gang Hai: Bitter at first. Sweet aftertaste.
D101: Creamy onions. Sweet. Slightly pungent.
Tekka: Rich. Vegetal. Custardy.
D13: Like caramel. Fruity.
The results, unsurprisingly, were all over the map. One person's favorite was someone else's last-choice pick. Sweet and bitter (with no negative connotation for either) came up often as the two major taste profiles, with most agreeing that you needed to eat a bitter durian before a sweet one or you'd mess up your taste buds. Some of the students had strong initial predictions but changed their minds once the vast sampling began.
"You never know until you open it," one student said. "It's not like a watermelon! You can't knock on it or smell it and know what you're getting." Trying to corral durian's craziness proved harder than I thought, but one thing was for sure: It was irresistible.
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