Durian, King Of Fruit
A fruit loved my many
and loathed by just as many.
Which faction do you belong to?
Look at these menacing works of nature. Who would dream that they can be eaten? Can you imagine working in a durian plantation, always fearing for your life should one of these organic death-maces fall on your head? But fret not. I remember visiting a durian plantation decades ago on a school tour to Melaka, the guide explained that durian trees have ‘eyes’. The fruit won’t fall on people, and they tend to fall at night, when you’re unlikely to be around the tree. Could this be part of the magic of durian? Does it deserve to be the King of Fruit?
There is no other fruit that brings about so much contention between those who adore it, and those who absolutely abhor it. Let me illustrate how deep into history this botanical tug-of-war has gone for by quoting these personalities:
Durian-lover Anthony Bourdain:
“Its taste can only be described as…indescribable, something you will either love or despise. …Your breath will smell as if you’d been French-kissing your dead grandmother.”
Important note: you should not eat durians if you’re having a date on that day.
Durian-hater Richard Sterling:
“Its odor is best described as pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock. It can be smelled from yards away.”
Durian-lover Alfred Russel Wallace:
“A rich custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but there are occasional wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes… It is neither acid nor sweet nor juicy; yet it wants neither of these qualities, for it is in itself perfect.”
Durian-hater Anthony Burgess:
“It’s like eating sweet raspberry blancmange in the lavatory.”
“I feel sad for people who can’t eat durian. Life for them must be so pathetic, they’re missing out on so much!”
I also remember some of my ang moh friends speaking about durian in this manner: “It looks like baby poo… tastes like cream cheese with caramelised onions.” Sometimes, I wonder if there is a gene that either gives you the ability to taste what’s wonderful or whats awful in a piece of durian.
“No durian” sign taken at my local MRT station
Having said all that. I must admit that opened durians, discarded durian shells and seeds do NOT smell good at all. After an initial 30-45minutes of freshness, the shells starts to smell funnily sour quite quickly. It’s such a potent scent that it can leak out of any bag unless it’s 100% vacuum sealed. That’s why you have these signs in Singapore’s MRT subway system forbidding the possession of durian. Most hotels will also disallow durians.
My family overcomes this problem in this manner: we put the durian in vacuum-tight boxes in the car’s boot to bring home. We’d open the fruit up quickly and transfer the flesh into tupperwares for refrigeration and immediately dispose of the shells. Even doing it that way, the boot will have a lingering scent of durian for a few days.
How an opened up durian fruit looks like
The durians that I can find in Melbourne are usually frozen and imported mon thongs from Thailand. I firstly don’t really like the taste of frozen durian because they release a juice when defrosted that smells a little rancid. Also, I am not fond of mon thongs. Yes, even when it comes to durian, I am fussy about where it comes from. Mon Thongs are Thai durian cultivars with bright yellow flesh and small seeds. it’s popular in Australia because it is creamy and sweet with milder flavours. To me, the flavour isn’t deep enough in aromatic complexity to count as a good durian.
My family feels that durians from Thailand and Vietnam pales in comparison to what you can get from Malaysia. In fact, when we were in Saigon, the fruit vendor even admits that Vietnamese durians isn’t as good as Malaysian durians. That didn’t stop us from buying a durian from her. It was, afterall, 2 years since I had a real durian. When I exclaimed how much I loved that Vietnamese durian, dad immediately cooed “so poor thiing!”.
In the past, durian used to be sold as whole fruit and it’d cost around SGD$8-22 per kilo. It wasn’t surprising that a family might spend SGD$70-120 on 3-6 durians to bring home and eat. It was always an exciting event, I’d accompany mom to the fruit stall. She’d know which durian vendor she can speak to and trust, and exactly what to say to them in order to get a good batch of durian. It pays to speak Hokkien (or at least Singlish) here. Sometimes, mom would pick up a fruit, inspect its outsides, weigh it in her hand, take a deep sniff… and then ask the vendor to open it. We pay for only what we accept as good fruit. A self-respecting durian vendor will not give his customers crappy fruit.
Our family’s current favourite durian vendor in Serangoon Central. He sells D24 on a per-fruit basis, ranging from $5-$10 each. Mao Shan Wang’s cost $15 per kg.
Vendor opening the fruit for mom to check
I’d watch the vendor grab the thorny durian with a heavily gloved hand, stabbing at the shell with a durable knife with a rhythmic two to three thumps before the knife enters a cavity. With a twist of the knife, the durian is opened slightly to reveal the flesh. At this point, mom would peer into the cavity, press on the flesh… and one slight furrow in mom’s brow would make the vendor sheepishly throw the durian away into the no-good pile. Such is mummy-power!
As a general rule of thumb, the flesh should be firm, resilient, creamy looking and either a healthy greenish white or yellow in colour. If it’s translucent, that means the fruit will be watery not not good to eat. If the flesh is opaque, that means it’s unripe and hard. . Once mom accepts the durian, the vendor will hack further along the slit so that the fruit will be easily opened by us at home. The base of the fruit is then “tied-up” with rubber bands to prevent them from splitting open during the trip home. The no-good pile also has its uses. It can be sent to confectioneries to make durian desserts like durian puffs, durian pancakes and durian cakes. Sometimes mom would score a bag of rejected durians to bring home and make durian puffs. And oh, do those puffs taste marvellously divine!
Mum’s Durian Puffs
Anyway, those were the days… These days, durian is more commonly sold pre-packed in styrofoam boxes. They are usually displayed as opened packets sealed over with clingwrap. We can instantly see the colour of durian flesh and guesstimate whether it will be a good packet of durian or not. It’s generally about SGD$10-20 per packet.
When I was younger all we had was “durian”. Now the Singapore fruit stalls are selling many varieties of “branded” durian with vastly different price ranges. D24, D101, D88, D13, D99, Phoenix Durian, XO Durian and Mao Shan Wang. What the heck, are they trying to sell Nikon cameras? It’s also funny how Singaporeans like to append numbers to their food product: Lor Mee 178, Katong Laksa 328 and now D24 etc. Whether these “brands” are for real I honestly wouldn’t know because I haven’t sat myself down to taste each different cultivar side by side. But I do know that generally, I have never been unhappy with D24 durians.
So being the spoilt child that I am, mom and dad scoured the streets of Singapore to find me good durian in January, when it’s off season. I don’t know how they did it, but when I got home after catching up with friends one day, there they were! A whole D24 durian fruit and a styrofoam packet of Mao Shan Wangs. So with mom as my hand-model, here’s how we used to open up a durian for consumption before the styrofoam pre-packng trend came to Singapore.
Firstly, imagine that you possess fingers of steel
Then, find the ‘fault lines’ created by the vendor’s knife and pry the fruit open
After devouring the first segments, use the base of the palm to push down the edges of the fruit
And voila! The King of Fruit torn apart. No longer as scary as it looks!
On a side note… back when we bought the fruit whole, we used to fill one of these empty segments with iced salted water and drink from it. Dad used to say it helps cool our bodies from the heatiness of the durian. That bit about heatiness is true, I normally come down with the start of a sore throat after a big durian (or roast duck) binge. Other friends of mine have told me that the white insides of the shell have this odour-removing property. So you can rub your hands against the white husk to get rid of the durian smell after eating, or drink from it. I might try out that theory next time.
These Mao Shan Wang (猫山王 – Cat Mountain King) and D24 durians that dad and mom bought were really really good. Creamy, deeply fragrant, unimaginably tasty and subtly bitter. It must’ve cost them an absolute fortune because they told me not to ask how much they paid. Probably $50 per fruit. But I loved each and every bit of it. In terms of taste difference, I think Mao Shan Wang was creamier and less bitter. Mao Shan Wang is the current new “craze” in Singapore durians, when I was last here few years back, they didn’t exist.
Ultimately, I still really like D24’s taste best because it has the deepest flavour profile with such an indescribable symphony of sweet, bitter and creamy hitting the back of your palate. When I was younger, I could practically eat the whole fruit at one sitting. These days, I’m fulfilled with just a few pieces of the flesh. So this batch of durians allowed our family 4-5 days of gastronomic joy.
From Left: D24 seeds, Mao Shan Wang seeds.
Like mon thongs, mao shan wangs have shrunken seeds, means you get a lot more flesh per unit fruit.