There’s no other fruit in the world as divisive as the durian. The acrid smell it omits, even through its spiky casing, has me gagging from a mile away. Smelling like something between rotting cabbage and faeces, durian’s potency has even led to its ban on public transport in Singapore.
Although many revile it, fans of this ‘King of Fruits’ are fervent in their idolatry.
On my travels through Malaysia several years ago, I would swerve my moped to avoid the bowling-ball husks dangling menacingly by the roadside, and warned everyone I met not to buy the sealed boxes that were being hawked at night markets. It was rare to see it being eaten in public, and even rarer to see it on menus.
Today though, it’s a different story, and enthusiasm for durian is growing beyond Malaysia and Indonesia; it’s been revered as a delicacy around the world.
American Lindsay Gasik, author of The Durian Tourist’s Guide to Thailand, is a convert. While backpacking in 2012, Gasik discovered that she enjoyed the smell and the taste of this peculiar fruit so much that she went on to create a blog dedicated to it.
Year of the Durian documented her travels and tastings and, after encountering others who shared her passion, she partnered with local Malaysian durian farmers and connoisseurs to create the Bao Sheng Durian Festival in Penang.
‘When western travelers first arrived in Southeast Asia in the 16th century, they mostly thought durian was amazing—the custard of the gods, nature’s ambrosia and so on,’ Gasik enthuses. ‘It was only with colonisation by the British that durian came to symbolize a threat and a schism between culture.
‘In the Victorian era, women had to go to their bedrooms to eat things like oranges because it was considered indecent to eat them in public, so durian—with its strong and pungent aroma and untidy appearance—was considered an ‘unchaste’ food.’
Western tastes have changed dramatically in the past 100 years, with the adventurous looking to the east to expand their culinary horizons.
‘People are a lot more open-minded these days,’ adds Gasik. ‘They’re looking for culinary adventures and things to taste different. Now people want to ‘go native’, as it were.’
In her durian fan club, Gasik counts connoisseurs from Iceland and Australia, to Hong Kong and the US.
‘Our community is adventurous, open-minded, passionate, social and dedicated to having a really good time in life. The best tasting durian is one that you share with good friends,’ Gasik laughs.
The annual durian festival, organized by Gasik and her team—which includes Australian raw food enthusiast and endurance athlete Grant Campbell and durian ‘sommeliers’ Master Seng and his son Zhi Vooi—involves a week-long stretch Bao Sheng Farm, Master Seng’s fourth-generation durian farm. Perched on the hillside overlooking the Straits of Malacca and Penang’s durian orchards, the trip involves all-you-can-eat durian, plus various cooking and educational sessions.
Durian appreciation is not so unusual these days, I am told by Phoebe Donko-Hanson, a Ghana native who took up her role as executive chef at Aloft Kuala Lumpur in December 2015.
‘It’s an indulgence for many locals here,’ explains Phoebe, who first learned about durian when she travelled to Malaysia a year ago, but now features a durian cheesecake on her dessert menu.
‘I know people who travel the width and breadth of Malaysia during durian season in order to sample the different varieties. For the non-locals who are not familiar with durian, there seems to be a love-hate relationship with it. The ones with more adventurous palettes eventually came around to liking it though,’ she reveals.
Phoebe isn’t alone in her pursuit. Chef Ken Liew at the Sheraton Imperial Kuala Lumpur Hotel recently put a snow-skin mooncake on his menu, the main ingredient of which was the Musang King durian—regarded as one of the best varieties.
‘It’s a challenging but rewarding ingredient and I really like to use it,’ he says. ‘For locals in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand, it’s been enrooted in our system for many years. It’s known as the ‘king of fruit’ here.’
Head Pastry Chef at Le Meridien Kuala Lumpur, Loh Mee Foong says even in her own family there’s a love-hate relationship with the fruit. ‘It’s still a popular fruit among Malaysians, especially during the season, yet in my own family two of my children do not like it, and a few of my local colleagues too. They all say that the smell is too strong.
‘I think this is very personal, it is difficult to change their mind, and make them like it.’
As for me, I was never able to get past those pungent aromas in Malaysia to try it myself, but perhaps one day I’ll hold my nose and be adventurous enough to give it a go! Perhaps, like kimchi or camembert, it’s only a matter of time before the smell and taste of durian converts us all.
Have you tried durian? Share your thoughts with us at #momentumtravel.