Exploring exotic flavors: Adventures in Durian
And now for something completely different… My family and I recently went to visit my brother’s family in Maryland. We happened to go to their local supermarket which, it turns out, sold quite a variety of interesting and hard-to-find produce. Sour oranges, Thai eggplant, Jack fruit and…. durian! If you are not familiar with the name of this fruit, you might actually have seen it and not known what the heck it was. I personally, had seen them a number of times being sold down in Chinatown by the food stand vendors. They are large and melon-like with many spikes (they look ouch) and are sold usually in plastic meshes for easy carrying.
Prior to this time, I did have one absolutely horrifying experience with this fruit. About ten years ago, my husband and friend were around in Chinatown and decided to pick it up, wondering what in the world it could be. While I had seen them before I had no idea what it was and frankly was afraid of finding out. At home, they opened it up and then… the stench!!! It was unlike anything I’d smelled from a fruit! It was a combo of vomit, garbage and dirty diapers. Just bad. While my husband and his friend seemed curious to try it despite the rank nature of the odor, I strongly discouraged them and advised they throw it away immediately, which they did. How could anything that smells so vile be good for eating?
Well, ten years later, I was very curious about durian after a former coworker of mine had told me about living in Indonesia and how it was his absolute favorite fruit. He was so reluctant to depart with access to this fruit that he bought a number of them before leaving and proceeded (to the great dismay of people standing around) to open them up and eat them at the airport! I was intrigued further after reading about the descriptions on wikipedia.
When I saw them at the supermarket, I thought, “This is it!” Still a little nervous, my husband and I surprised my brother and wife with news that we were going to try something a little different tonight. They approached the experience with reluctance. However after reading the wikipedia entry, they too became quite intrigued. Later on that evening, after having some wine and friendly conversation, my sister-in-law, Jean was anxious to get the experience started. We were all very nervous as she cut it open because of the stench, but to our surprise, there was so rank odor. It turns out the Thai variety (which we had purchased) is far less stinky. It smelled like… well, onions! The flesh looked like scrambled eggs and appeared very unappetizing. We noted how the durian looked like a carcass. Jean (brave soul) championed the first bite. A burst of laughter. What? What was so funny? “Onions! It tastes like onions… but sweet!” My husband took the next bite. Another burst of laughter. “Yes, onions!” I took the next one and it did indeed have an uncanny sweet but strong savory flavor like that of sauteed onions. The texture was soft and juicy. It can only be compared to something like very soft scrambled eggs or very ripe mango. We all took a second bite. It hit us again. This time no onion flavor! I tasted something like a melony mango flavor. With each bite, this flavor became more and more pronounced. However, we were all reporting different flavors. Custard, cheesy, vanilla, almond, papaya etc. It turns out each pod or sack tasted different from one another. There was definitely a chemical reaction happening in our mouths. It was completely baffling that we all tasted onions in the beginning, but the end flavors were nothing close to an onion. Overall, the flavors were indescribable but very pleasant and definitely unlike anything we’d tried before.
It was an experience I recommend as we were all very astounded by it. The one thing it does not have going for it (besides the potential stink) is the appearance. It looks very unappetizing. If you do decide to go for it, it’s best to start with the Thai variety as it’s milder in smell and flavor. Once you become an expert in durian, you can graduate to the Malay and Indonesian varieties. If you check out wikipedia, apparently people use durian to flavor all kinds of things. There’s even a durian-flavored Yule log cake, durian ice cream and durian-flavored cappuccinos! Perhaps if someone requests, I might be even make a durian-flavored wedding cake! That would truly be a flavor for the exotic and adventurous.