Friday, June 10, 2011

Durian - What's The Big Stink?

I had somehow managed to survive nearly two years in Indonesia without sampling what can arguably be called its most famous fruit - durian. Resembling a large, slightly oblong bowling ball covered in spikes, this is a fruit with a colorful, or should I say, malodorous, reputation. Banned in hotels and airplanes for its intensely fragrant aroma (stench?), this is not a fruit to be messed with. Food and travel writer Richard Sterling once famously described its odor as a mix of 'pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock'. Anthony Bourdain, host of the popular food and travel show 'Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations', noted that after eating durian, 'your breath will smell as if you'd been French-kissing your dead grandmother'. In spite of these descriptions by Western writers, durian remains a popular flavor here in Indonesia for everything from ice-cream to condoms.

You would really have to like durian a lot to use these...

With just over a week left in Indonesia, I decided that I had to try durian just once to see what all the fuss was about. It seems that people either love it or hate it and I was curious about which category I would fall into.

After my ICRS farewell party, where I had mentioned my desire to try durian before I left Indonesia, one of my coworkers offered to take me to a roadside durian stand on the way back to my guesthouse. I was all for the idea. We drove down Jl. Kaliurang until we came to a row of 5 or 6 durian sellers on the side of the road. We parked the car, crossed two busy lanes of traffic and then sat down on the mat next to several big mounds of durians. The durian seller started sniffing different fruits until he picked one that was suitably ripe for us. He sliced it open with a huge machete type knife and then set the two halves down in front of us.

Time to dig in!

I pulled out a big chunk of gooey, light yellow colored fruit. I cautiously took a bite, expecting it to taste something like a pungently ripe piece of soft cheese and was surprised to find that it didn't taste like that at all. And, for that matter, it didn't taste like for turpentine, onions or gym socks, either. It had a mild, not unpleasant taste, sort of like almonds. And the texture was creamy and custard-like. Dicky and I ate our way through the first layer of fruit and then the seller cut the halves in half again to reveal further seeds and flesh. We kept eating. I surprised myself by eating so much of it. I had imagined just taking one bite and then being done but it really wasn't bad at all. Dicky asked me to rate it on a scale of 1 to 10 and I gave it a 7. Maybe that was a little high, but I think I was factoring in the whole authentic experience of sitting at the side of a busy road with my Indonesian colleague and the durian seller while countless motorbikes whizzed by.

Devouring the roadside delicacy 

As we ate our way through the entire fruit, Dicky told me interesting facts like how the durians we were eating weren't from Yogya because the durian season in Yogya is only from November to February. The durians we were eating came from Sumatra. He also said it was possible to get drunk by eating durian. Well, I didn't feel drunk at the end of our culinary adventure but I do sort of agree with Anthony Bourdain's comment about the aftertaste!

I'm glad I tried it and I was happy that the odor and taste of that particular durian weren't as bad as I expected but I think my life will go on just fine without durian once I'm back in the US.

Mission successful. Still smiling after my first durian experience.


  1. i concur about neither loving nor hating it. I was told that there are different kinds of durian, I assume like there are different kinds of apples. and perhaps some types of durian are more pungent/ delicious than other, just like different apples types taste different. I strongly suspect the durian in Thailand, eaten by both Anthony Bourdian (who loves it!) and Andrew Zimmern (who vomited after eating durian, but raved about the fresh roasted bat-onna-stick and live octopus), is stronger stuff than that available in Indonesia. Also, a friend of mine said is it a "hot fruit" and it is supposed to make you all warm inside (possibly like alcohol does?), but i never felt that. :-) -amy

  2. I suspect you're right, Amy. I'm sure there ARE more potent varieties of durian out there. If I ever come across one, I'll probably have to adjust my rating.