The durian experience – Malaysia’s most popular and pungent fruit

Its fans believe it to be one of the world’s greatest delicacies, yet equally as many have derided its flavor in extremely colorful terms. It is known as the “king of the fruits”, yet there are actually places where it is illegal to eat it in public. No trip toMalaysiacould be complete without trying it. We are talking, of course, about the infamous durian fruit. The heavy fruit with sharp thorns and creamy yellow flesh is native to Malaysia and for centuries has been both celebrated and despised. The fruit does occasionally show up on Korean grocery shelves, but it is best experienced in its home country of Malaysia. And if travel is about broadening your horizons through new experiences, well, durian is sure to be a very new experience.

A display rack of durians for sale by a street vendor in Kuala Lumpur.

A display rack of durians for sale by a street vendor in Kuala Lumpur. Pic: Jack Merridew, Wikimedia Commons.

Descriptions of the durian usually begin with its unforgettable aroma. It has been compared to everything from rotten onions to corpses. The American chef Anthony Bourdain, who tends to be dramatic, actually compared it to “kissing your dead grandmother”. The powerful odor is what has led to the fruit’s banishment from certain public places, and the seeds can be toxic. So yes, it may take some bravery to approach it for the first time. But then that bravery is richly rewarded by the flavor. Fans describe the durian’s silky, custard-like flesh as tasting like almonds, but it is impossible to understand the flavor before eating it yourself. First-time eaters often find the flavor to be an inexplicably delicious version of the very same odor that made them nervous. And with its dozens of variations and dishes featuring it, once you’re hooked on durian you won’t run out of new ways to eat it. Its flavor changes with its ripeness, with the seasons, and with the region in which a particular fruit is grown. The summer months of June to August are considered the peak months for durian, as it has a milder flavor during the rest of the year. In Malaysiayou can find everything from traditional durian candies to modern durian ice cream cakes. For example, the traditional candied form of durian in Malaysia is easily available in modern packaging at convenience stores and supermarkets in the country, so that’s probably the easiest way to introduce yourself to durian. You won’t be allowed to bring a fresh durian into your hotel room, because of the smell, but you could certainly stop to eat one in a public park. Just scoop it out with a spoon, ignoring the thick seeds. If you’re a first-time eater, just bear down and remember that once you get it in your mouth, you’ll enjoy it. Of course, try not to let too much of the juice get on your hands and clothes, because the smell will definitely stay with you.

Forbidden durians, a sign in Malaysia.

Forbidden durians, a sign in Malaysia. Pic: Pixeltoo, Wikimedia Commons.

Malaysians considerPenangdurian to be the best variety, but there are plenty of other varieties to experiment with. The fruit’s flavor changes with its degree of ripeness, providing a range of flavors to experience. For a really ripe one, look for one with its husk already cracked open. However ripe you want it, make sure the stem looks healthy to be sure you are getting a good one. After conquering the fresh durian, you can move on to ice kacang, a kind of patbingsu which can be made with durian. There are durian ice creams, durian chips, durian cakes, durian milkshakes, durian rice cakes, and even durian pastries. Some restaurants serve dishes made with durian, such as sauteed durian greens. Some people eat durian with bananas and cheese. Some coffee shops will brew up a durian cappucino. The wide variety of ways that Malaysians have come up with to eat durian is a testament to its huge popularity and the unique gourmet experience it delivers.

Durian products in the market place.

Durian products in the market place. Pic: Kerina yin, Wikimedia Commons.

As you can probably see by now, even though it has such a challenging flavor, people inMalaysiaand nearby countries eat a lot of durian, in a lot of different ways. That makes it a bit similar to kimchi, which is also a unique food with a pungent aroma that is consumed in vast quantities by Koreans and foreigners who like it. Touring Malaysia without trying durian would be a bit like touring Korea without trying kimchi. Touring a country is often an experience in paradox. We experience the contrast of the country’s traditional culture but also its modern development. We experience the feeling of getting lost or not speaking the language, but also the joy of being helped by a stranger. The durian’s ability to combine the world’s most unusual flavors in the world’s most delicious fruit is equally paradoxical, and should not be missed by any world traveller.

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