Q: What fruit is shaped like a hedgehog and smells like compost?


A: Durian.
Introducing another delectable morsel for my readers with discriminating tastes.

    Mark K., a recent visitor to my Web site, noticed a reference to the oriental fruit durian on my bio page. His curiosity piqued, he asked,

Where would you get durian? I have a rough time finding a conventional grocery store in Philadelphia that has fresh spinach.
Glad you asked. Here's my reply:
    I first encountered durian while visiting some dear friends in Singapore—a delightful young married couple named Adrin and Jennifer Loi. We were walking up the stairway to their flat when I was overwhelmed by an embarrassing odor. It smelled like someone's 2-year-old had a stomach ailment about a week before and no one had carried off the soiled nappies yet. I was bravely and politely trying not to show that I had caught wind of the odor—when they began to talk about what a lovely fragrance it was.
    "Mmm. Do you smell that?" Jennifer asked, stopping me just where the foul effluvium was wafting so thick you could almost feel it.
    "Well, I did notice a rather pungent scent," I admitted, eyes watering. Then, after silencing a couple of involuntary gags, I asked, "What happened? Your neighbors move away and leave their compost pile behind?"
    "Americans always say they don't like that smell!" Jennifer said in all seriousness. "But we think it's heavenly."
    I looked at Adrin, thinking Jennifer must be setting him up for a clever punch line, but he just nodded in perfect sincerity.
    Then Adrin explained what durian is and promised to treat me to a taste of "the king of fruits" after dinner. I decided on the spot that I was going to order something light for dinner—maybe a clear broth, or something else that wouldn't be too awful to puke up.
    I also changed the subject, hoping Adrin would forget about the promised treat. I began thinking of things I might say if Adrin brought up this suggestion again. (Dessert? DESSERT?! We don't NEED no STINKING dessert!)
    But Adrin did not forget. In fact, to make sure he didn't forget, he purchased the diabolical produce before dinner and left it in a paper bag in his car while we were in the restaurant. Big mistake. Even Adrin himself later admitted this was a bad decision. When we returned, the car was so fetid we had to roll down the windows and hang our heads out on the ride home. Even so, it was all I could do to keep from heaving.
durian    When we got home (the place where I was staying, not Adrin's home), he pulled the prickly durian thing from the bag and cut it open. It was then that the vile object really began to emit a stench. It's an offwhite jackfruit that breaks easily into sections. Adrin handed me a section, and they waited, watching me expectantly until I took the first bite.
    Asians always do that. You can never tell if they are honestly being polite, or if this is all a big practical joke at your expense. But in order to show good manners in return, you must take the first bite. Since I was loathe to spoil my reputation as one American who never complains about foreign foods, I took the malodorous fruit Adrin held out to me and bit into it—not timidly, but with gusto.
    And I guess it was no joke. Because as soon as I took one bite, Adrin and Jennifer dived into it like it was the best thing they had ever tasted. And between three of us, we dispatched that whole durian in a matter of ninety seconds.
    I have to admit, in its own way it was quite tasty. But it leaves the same sort of aftertaste as chewing on a whole clove of garlic. I could taste that thing for days.
    As for purchasing fresh durian in America, I'm not sure this is possible. (I've heard you can buy frozen durian, but I've never seen it.) If real durian are available at all, they would doubtless have to be bought from an Asian produce market. You can bet the local A&P would never permit such vile-smelling things inside their produce departments.
    Where would the durian come from, anyway? Imports? How'd you like to be the guy flying a planeload of these across the Pacific?
    No, I'd say you might as well stick to hunting fresh spinach, unless you happen to be in Asia. Then indulge yourself—and tell the guy at the produce stand you were recommended by me. Ask him for the most powerfully-scented Durian he can get. Then e-mail me and let me know how you liked it.
    Thanks, Mark K., for prompting these warm memories.

Bonus: I found an informative reference to durian in one of my favorite trivia resources, The Best, Worst, and Most Unusual, by Bruce Felton and Mark Fowler (New York: Galahad, 1976), 222. Durian, of course, is listed as "Worst Fruit." Felton & Fowler say this:
It's about the size of a bowling ball, covered with sharp, stiff, spiny points, and grows on trees throughout southeast Asia, most predominantly in Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. The business end of a durian, which is the inside, is mucuslike in consistency, and the unique flavor is reminiscent of garlic, smoked ham, and rancid cheese. Durians, known throughout the orient as the "king of fruits," are prohibitively expensive when not in season—a medium-sized fruit may go for five or six dollars—and potentially lethal in the hands and stomachs of the unanointed. (One danger is in their weight. Unwitting foreigners have been known to be struck fatally on the head by durians falling from trees. Others have made the mistake of washing down a durian dessert with a quart of beer. The resultant gas has blasted their insides to smithereens.) Walk through the vegetable stalls in Singapore or Bangkok during durian season and you'll swear the city's sewage disposal system is on the blink. English novelist Anthony Burgess, in fact, has said that dining on durian is a lot like eating vanilla custard in a latrine.

NEWS FLASH: A recent e-mail message from Bryan Hubbard contained this tidbit:
Hi Phil. My wife and I were buying produce in an Asian Market not far from us, when we came across a display of Durian. Neither of us had ever seen this fruit, or whatever it was, before, so a Web inquiry was in order, and you popped up. Thanks for the information, and, although the person who inquired of you where to find them, is not likely to be in our area, we found them at The Asian Market at the intersection of Route 27 and Stelton Road in NJ. Thanks again.
So I guess you can purchase Durian here in the USA—at least in New Jersey, where the aroma adds a fitting bouquet to the fragrance of this little industrial park that sarcastically calls itself "The Garden State."

AND THIS JUST IN: An even more recent e-mail from Donna Chau informs me:
Hi, Phil.  I would like to let you know that there are durians available at the Hawaii Supermarket just east of Los Angeles.  Their address is: 120 E Valley Blvd San Gabriel CA 91776.  Their phone is 626.307.0062.  They have frozen ones available all year round and fresh ones when they are in season.  The fresh ones are generally much more expensive than the frozen ones so my family and I eat the frozen ones.  The frozen ones are definitely not as fragrant or vile, whichever term you prefer.  If you ever visit the store, you might go to the open meat freezer where you can also purchase an armadillo and duck blood.  Have fun!  Donna

Oh, yes! Have fun we will. That's less than an hour from where I live. Sounds like a great place.

UPDATE: In March of 2000, I had an opportunity to enjoy Durian in Singapore again, this time through the kindness of my host and good friend Peter Low. Peter also made the mistake of leaving the durian in his car for several (4+) hours (do they never learn?), and when we returned to his car, it smelled like a goat had died in there. Nonetheless, the Durian was as creamy and tasty as I remembered it.

See also: Durian Palace

Images on this page were shamelessly ripped off from the Durian OnLine Photo Gallery and are ©1995-96 by Durian OnLine. Used by permission.

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