Thursday, August 12, 2010

The King of Fruits

I can't convince myself it looks like food and not a dissection project.

I have been in Singapore since July 24 for a math program at the university here. I've really been enjoying the food, and I think I've gotten a lot of great ideas I can take home. I hope to write a post about my overall food experiences here, but right now, I am just going to tell you about my experience tonight with the "king of fruits," durian.

Durian is a famous tropical fruit. It seems to be very popular in Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore. Here is its wikipedia page in case you want more information and some better pictures. It is large and formidably spiky, but the most distinctive thing about durian is its smell. Before I came here, I had heard of durian and knew that it was famously stinky, but I had never smelled it. Walking along the sidewalk in Chinatown, I caught a whiff of something and immediately knew it was durian. Durian is a good reminder that our ancestors spent a lot of time starving. It's notobvious that it is edible. Durian is not permitted in most buildings or transport in Singapore, so procuring a durian immediately decreases your range. Consequently, I had not tried it until today.

Durian does not smell that bad to me, at least in an open area. It doesn't smell like something good to eat, but I was under the impression that it smelled like a rotting corpse, which is not the case. It reminds me of pineapple that went seriously funky. Tropical but feety. I have had the experience of being on a subway train with a durian, so I know that in a confined space, it's pretty overwhelming. Given my fairly mild reaction to the smell, I expected that I would not mind durian, and possibly even like it. I was also going into the experience thinking of durian as a cheese. I have heard people describe it as cheeselike. I thought that if I didn't think of it as a fruit, the fact that it was unlike most other fruits would be less offensive. All in all, I was confident that I could take it.

Durian is available at many price points. The stand I went to tonight sold the same amount of durian for prices ranging from S$1-S$25. In retrospect, perhaps this was bad advice, but I had heard that it was important to try good durian and that there was a strong positive correlation between price and quality. I was told that if I tried a bad one I would never want to try it again. So I went with a midrange durian, marked at S$12 but sold for S$8. (To put this in perspective, I usually spend about S$4 for a nice lunch and a drink in the student canteen at the university, so S$8 is not insignificant.) I was given a bag and went off in search of a place where I could eat it without bothering anyone.

I ended up sitting on a ledge near the Chinatown MRT station. I carefully opened the package and attempted to pick up the first piece. The texture was not anything like I expected. More than anything, it reminded me of ripe, room-temperature Camembert. Undaunted, I licked what I could get off my fingers. The taste was a lot like sharp roasted onion or garlic. I like Camembert and roasted onion, but I did not like durian. It was almost like as the fruit approached my mouth, there was this revulsion I had to overcome to get it in. I think the smell influences the taste in a negative way, and the texture doesn't help at all. I tried to get a few bites down, but I gave up pretty early. An older man sitting near me was clearly amused by the "white girl trying durian for the first time" show and asked if I liked it. I replied that it wasn't my thing, and he told me that only Asians and Australians like it. Europeans don't like it at all. I tried to offer him the rest since the thought of trying any more was quite unpleasant. He refused it several times and told me I should give it to someone in my hotel (where it is not allowed), so I gave up and threw it away when I was out of eyeshot.

I now think that perhaps I should have tried cheaper durian, not just because then I would have spent less on something I didn't enjoy, but because perhaps more expensive durian is also softer and more pungent. Maybe cheap durian is harder and less distinctive, and I think I would have done better with a less flavorful specimen. But I'm not going to test that theory.

After ditching the durian, I quickly upgraded to a coconut, my king of fruit.

My hero!


Jamie said...

I had never heard of durians. I have tried jackfruit and cashew apples and thought they were bad. Sounds like durian is much worse. If I get a chance, I'll try it.

mollyjade said...

Good for you for being so adventurous!