Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Durian Appreciation 101

The durian is a bit of an enigma. Just look at the thing. Weighing in at 2-4 kg and covered with precarious spikes, it's not exactly screaming "eat me!" Yet here I am, eagerly watching as Sufiyo breaks into the precious commodity. All I can think is, how did I get here?

Peaches and apricots adopt lovely orange and pink hues to encourage consumption, leading one to rightly assume that the flesh will be soft and sweet. Berries shine in the sun and tempt with obvious juiciness, while mangoes and other tropicals emit tantalizing aromas. But the durian plays no such tricks. Its color is a dull brown, the countless spikes are actually quite sharp, and a fresh one smells like old gym socks (I kid you not). Why on earth does anyone eat this thing?

The fact is, the durian is a sort of raw food holy grail. If you like durian, you're a true raw foodie. Now I was having my first taste with veteran raw foodies and durian obsessees, so I must admit I felt a lot of pressure to actually enjoy this strange fruit. And strange it was. Ours had been frozen, which is, unfortunately, the only way they are available in Melbourne. So it didn't give off much of its infamous odor, which was probably a good thing for my first time. As I listened to Sufiyo explain how to choose a good durian (make sure it gives only slightly to touch, peel away the spikes a bit while the shop owner isn't looking and inspect the texture of the flesh), I felt a mixture of excitement and revulsion. But when she cracked the thing, I thought that the large, custard-colored pods looked rather inviting. So I went for it.

The taste is really something indescribable, but since I'm a writer, I'll give it a shot. My first observation was texture - creamy, smooth, custard-like. The initial flavor impression that I got was mildly sweet, sort of vanilla with a hint of almond, but slowly something that didn't seem to belong crept up. I can only describe it as fried onions. Not offensive, but really strange and hard to get used to.

"It tastes...strange."

Between four of us we polished off about 1 1/2 durians. I don't know if I could have eaten as much if it hadn't been for Sufiyo's amazing cacao sauce. She actually used Loving Earth's coconut cacao butter as a base, adding some agave and melting it in warm water, but it would be easy to make a homemade version with coconut oil, cacao powder, and agave. Dipping the durian flesh in the cacao sauce was like heaven, and took some of the oniony edge off of the fruit's flavor.

Durian + cacao = tryptophan heaven

About ten minutes into gorging ourselves I started to feel really giddy, giggly and silly. This was followed by waves of calmness. I can only attribute this to the high tryptophan content of the fruit (tryptophan is a seratonin precursor, as well as an essential amino acid). In fact, cacao is also relatively rich in tryptophan. So not only does this stuff taste good (well, interesting, at the very least), it also makes you feel good. Raw food is amazing.

So was it worth it? Well, I'm glad that I went with my animal instinct and had a chomp of this forbidding fruit. My experience was closest to that of the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who described the fruit in 1856 as, "A rich custard highly flavoured with almonds...but there are occasional wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes," but I must admit I do understand why chef Andrew Zimmern thinks it tastes like "completely rotten, mushy onions." I'm not rushing out to buy anothe durian tomorrow, but I am eager to taste one fresh off the tree next time I can make it to tropical paradise. In the meantime, I'll let myself be lured by the fruits that flaunt their flavor. Excuse me while I go have a mango.


Paulina said...

Thank you for your awesome review. I have been dying to try a durian but the closest store carrying it is pretty far from my house. I'm willing to wait though!

David B. said...

I just tried some last night and your description is spot-on. I would have found it absolutely delicious were it not for that oniony flavor aspect, which jarred with the other flavor components.

It's strongly scented, but I found neither the scent nor the flavor revolting. Just... odd.

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