Few fruits are as polarizing as the durian. Among tourists it has a carefully burnished reputation for disgustingness. You get the impression that you’re not a legit traveller in southeast Asia until you’ve held your nose, gritted your teeth and slurped up some of its soft, custardy interior. Recently it even starred in an episode of Portlandia, where two Portland hipsters get one in their CSA box.
Durian’s taste strains the descriptive capacity of language. I’ve heard it described as “a fine French custard, passed through an open sewer.” Julia Morton says the odor “reminded the plant explorer, Otis W. Barret, of combined cheese, decayed onion and turpentine, or garlic, Limburger cheese and some spicy sort of resin.”
Alfred Russel Wallace, in The Treasury of Botany, was more complementary (but just as bafflingly paradoxical-sounding). He said the flesh is “a rich custard highly flavored with almonds…but there are occasional wafts of flavour that call to mind cream cheese, onion-sauce, sherry wine and other incongruous dishes. Then there is a rich glutinous smoothness in the pulp which nothing else possesses, but which adds to its delicacy. It is neither acid, nor sweet, nor juicy; yet it wants none of these qualities, for it is in itself perfect. It produces no nausea or other bad effect, and the more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop.”
I would have to concur with Wallace. My friend Craig and I picked up one of the bizarre, spiky fruits from a stall in the market (which we noticed first by its smell), and sat by the river in Chiang Mai to consume it, fully prepared to be disgusted.
And it was delicious! The two of us consumed half of it on the spot. If I had to describe it, I’d say it was like creamy vanilla pudding, with a nutty after-taste. It’s like a milk-shake ready made. But yes, there is that aroma, like onions and garlic and maybe something rotten. Nonetheless, as Wallace noted, the more fruit I ate the less I noticed the smell.
So yes, I highly recommend durian. I plan on eating it again as soon as I can.