The Durian

I've probably written about it before. It's a bit of a typical 'Westerner Visits Asia' subject.

I've also photographed them before and shown some of the ways they're being sold.

Durian seller in Port Dickson... 2010...

This one quite actively, but most of the time they're just sold at road stalls, with the sellers patiently waiting for buyers.

My very first bite was some 15 years ago, on Sabah (a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo). I remember it felt a bit like biting into a raw chicken breast (I've never actually bitten into a raw chicken breast mind you, but that's what I imagine it would feel like). I'm not sure if I swallowed it. I was surrounded by locals, all laughing, cause they know how westerners are mostly disgusted by it (I didn't mind the fun at my expense, I tried the same thing with my own local liquorish, called 'drop', just to see the reaction on Asian faces... I understood the fun...). It was just a small piece - I might have spit it out - and I thanked them for it. But after that experience I never tried again.

Until last night.

The evening was lovely, dinner with friends, who showed us a restaurant in Dengkil, heavy on the seafood, which is my favorite. We were sitting outside, feasting on our clams, fish and prawns, in the smell of durians, which were being sold right behind us. I'm used to the smell of the durian by now (personally I think the smell of jackfruit is more offensive than durian) and it doesn't bother me anymore. But that took a while.

Somewhat nicely put: the durian smells like excrements.

Yes, let's face it: like shit, poop, turds. You can smell it miles away. It's also very persistent (a bit how garlic can linger). It's banned in most hotels, because once you visited the room - you and your durian - they can't get the smell out. They need heavy expensive equipment to steam the room clean (I'm not joking). Durian incidents have also been reported on airplanes, when passengers try to smuggle them on board (they can be very expensive... so buying them somewhere cheap and dragging them home through the air is not uncommon), to the disgust of other passengers, who can't stand the smell.

I mean seriously, this is not some run of the mill banana or some cheeky peach: this is a disruptive fruit.

Last night I felt up for the challenge, when the friends suggested to top off the dinner with a durian. I agreed. Why not. Maybe that first one I tried wasn't the best, after J. had explained that the texture should not feel like a raw chicken breast.

Fun fact the other J. told me: it takes 15 years for the durian tree to bear fruit... so this fruit is not just disruptive, it also requires a lot of patience to grow, which does command a bit of respect (and it partly explains the price)...

The durian sellers of last night... selling them more or less from the back of their truck... the durians are in a stack on the ground, with the chopped off shell under the car in the white containers...

So I bit into a piece of durian a second time. Momentous I thought. Finally, after 15 years (which also meant that the durian I was about to try, came from a tree that was planted around the same time I first tried durian on Sabah, 15 years ago... one of those coincidences)...

The Durian Revisited.

The bite was overwhelming. The durian was swimming around in my mouth and I didn't know what to do with it. My brain couldn't decide: chew or swallow, chew or swallow, swallow! are you nuts? you're gonna puke... well okay, chew then? but there's nothing to chew! spit it out then! no way, I'm gonna beat this thing... for god sake do something with it, you can't just sit here the whole evening making crazy faces, they're gonna call a doctor!

Brains... they're just weird sometimes...

So yes, I froze. Except my face muscles. It must have been a spectacular sight. No laughing this time. These friends were concerned: if I needed some water... but I shook my head... I knew my brain would figure it out, right? In the meantime staring at the little cup I could spit it all into, to set my brain free...

Of course, taste and smell in general are impossible to convey in words, only in comparison, but regarding the texture: this was no chicken breast.

The taste was a gassy bitterness, damping out of a blob of fermented custard, with some sugary undertones.

I don't know how to describe it better. Gooey might also be a word for it. I'm not sure what locked up my brain, but it must have been the combination of different sensations all coming together, or my brain was intoxicated by the gas released by the fruit. I finally swallowed, still unsure if I could or if it would then come rushing back to my ready to receive spit cup...

It went in and stayed in.

After some gasping and a sip of tea, assuring my concerned friends I was managing the durian - I doubt they believed me... they probably felt more like the durian was managing me - I felt ready for my second bite (these durians aren't small).

The second bite was less staggering. The bitterness seemed to have dissipated and I could actually appreciate the flavor a bit more. However, I was still unsure what to do with it in my mouth. It seemed best to just swallow, since there was hardly anything to bite into. The flesh of the durian was just too buttery. Nothing like a banana (maybe like a banana three weeks overripe) and very far removed from an apple.

I managed a third bite, from another piece. Cleaned out the nut that apparently resides in every one of those yellow pieces (scaring my friends again, who thought I might have swallowed the nut too, or was about to start choking on it). Regarding the durian nut: think twice the size of a peach nut but smooth. It doesn't stand out in color. Almost the same as the pale yellowish flesh of the fruit.

By then I started to understand the appeal, although I was quite happy my friends had finished the thing: no more pieces left. I'm not sure I could have managed a fourth chunk.

In the end it's simple: the durian is an acquired taste. Like caviar, olives, or raw herring. Keep trying and you'll get used to it.

You might even start liking it.

Mind you, there are side-effects. When I burped in the car (excess burping also seems to be part of the durian experience), on the way back, I could taste durian again. Smell it again. And E. pulled up his face mask (he had eaten durian too, but the smell coming from me was too strong). Compare it to eating garlic: it lingers in all kinds of surprising ways.

Hopefully we don't have to steam out his car...

The durian shown in the snippet photo was the actual durian I ate.

The photo of the seller in Port Dickson was taken with the Canon 5D Mark II.

Leica M-D with Leica Summilux 50mm f/1.4

Malaysia - 29 June 2022