Durian: A Spiked Bowling-Ball Full of Sweet Pudding
In Malasia, the Selangor Sakai believe/d the moon to be an island of fruit trees laying in wait for the dead . And being an important fruit among them, the durian tree doubtlessly stands proud in the moongroves of their ancestors. While it may be hard stitch images of a fruit jungle and a lunar landscape together, it must be equally difficult to understand how a fruit with an odor so widely regarded as offensive could possibly be savored? Well, in the land of incongruities, durian is a tenured king.
Dressed in viciously sharp spikes, the durian has a rare and troubling distinction as being both a culinary delicacy and a potential murder weapon.
Open the durian carefully, and you will find what look like cream colored lungs lying prostrate in a giant spiked walnut husk. In that moment—if you subdue your urges to scream— you may be at once asked by the fruit to listen with your nose and smell with your tongue what small heavens God wrought here on Earth in the strangest of hiding places.
Or, you know…. EWWWWWW!!!!! IT SMELLS LIKE TRASH AND ONIONS!!!!!
Having spent a week sampling the durian daily, I’ve come to adore it as a kindly and generous old saint. I believe it deserves a bit more reverence.
Welcome to the realm of durian. All hail the King of Fruits.
Family — Malvaceae
Family Characteristics — Malvaceae family members tend to be mucilaginous with flowers presenting fused columnar stamens .
Notable Family Members—Hibiscus, okra, cacao, marshmallow, and common mallow .
Aliases — durion, lung-walnut (ENGLISH-SPEAKING); duyin (BURMESE); thureen (CAMBODIAN); stinkfrucht (DUTCH); dourian (FRENCH); duren (INDONESIAN); kadu (SUDANESE); dulian (PHILIPPINES); durião (PORTUGESE); doerian (SURINAMESE); thurian (THAI); saurieng, sầu riêng(VIETNAMESE)
Binomial Etymology—Duri- is a Malay word meaning “thorn” used in reference to the spiky fruit . Zibethinus is derived from the Italian word, zibetto, which is their word for the civet cat (a nocturnal feline with a strong odor) .
Ethnobotany of Durian
The wood tar produced by the KéDANG people of Lembata (an Indonesian island known as a member of the Lesser Sunda Islands) from the wood of the durian tree is used in ritual teeth blackening . The MARANAOS—a tribe of Muslim people living in the Philippines—boil and consume the leaves of the durian tree to relieve stomach ache .
Durian in Literature
What Does Durian Smell Like?
Throughout history, people have been describing the odor of durian using different approaches. Today we will try on a few of these fashionable hats to see which showcases our eyes in the most flattering light.
The Time-Honored Literary Approach
The classical tradition to describing the durian’s odor is to reach into a grab-bag of foul nouns and festoon together a sentence designed to both sicken and amuse the reader. Let’s fire up that ole steam engine, and see what pops out the other end:
“The durian smells like a rotting blue whale corpse stuffed with used jock-straps sprinkled with gasoline.”
Mostly untrue, but also SOOO much fun to write!
The Hatchet Job
Another tradition—in an almost pathological avoidance of pretension—is to oversimplify things. I call this approach “The Hatchet Job.” If we were to use this method, we’d put on our flannel pajamas, saunter over to the literary workbench, and hack the following sentence from a hunk of oak:
“Durian smells like gas.”
While technically true, this lie by omission is kin to saying your lox and cream cheese bagel smells like sesame seeds.
The Empirical Approach
Let us physically open our container of durian, close our eyes, take a whiff, and write down every scent we are reminded of and then string these aromas into a tolerable sentence. Let’s call this “The Empirical Approach.”
“The forward aroma of durian is sulfurous egg, onion, petrol, and cabbage mingled with faraway and fleeting rumors of tropical fruit.”
I can live with that description.
The Empirical Visualization
Now that we have come up with a livable description, let’s represent the relative intensities of those odors in a pie chart. Let’s call this “The Empirical Visualization.”
Of course we must remember that subjective descriptions are exactly that… subjective. We are all gifted with different senses and sensitivities. Please leave your interpretations in the comments below.
What Does Durian Taste Like?
The fresh texture of the sweet arils is creamy and custard-like. As such, durian pulp takes on the texture of ice cream when frozen. Let’s use the empirical approaches listed above now to describe the flavor of Durio zibethinus.
The Empirical Approach
The durian tastes like buttery custard and heavy cream flavored with onion juice and loads of sugar.
The Empirical Visualization
The literal flavor profile still being woefully incomplete, I would like to add a second visualization representing relative values of the seven generally accepted taste categories: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, umami, fat, and heat.
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