Confessions of a Durian Convert

Apr 06, 2011

This is the story of a young woman’s journey from indifference to reverence.

My friend Heather says that even the word "durian" leaves a bad taste in the mouth, and I agree. Try sounding it out loud. However you pronounce it, it sounds like the name of a weapon. Perhaps changing its name would make it more appealing, but since a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet, it follows that a durian by any other name would smell just as dangerous. To the nose, that is.

For the longest time I was indifferent towards them, not really understanding why the members of my family were always arguing whether the durian was the food of the gods or a stink bomb sent from hell.

Maybe it was sent to Earth to serve as a letter of caution, warning us of what was to come in the afterlife if we didn't adhere to standards of good behaviour. Trust me, I know what I'm talking about. Sometimes, after a long day at school, I would sit inside my father's car only to be greeted with the odour of a garbage dump. I'd cast him a funny look, and let out a sigh...

"Dad," I'd say, "Don't you have enough durians at home already?" And in the boot, there would inevitably be plastic containers of already-extracted flesh-covered seeds, labelled appropriately with the words "Home", "Kien Eng", "C.S." and so on, each box ready to be delivered to the person(s) named.

I'm not going to lie, I was always amused by this ritual. Here was my busy father who sometimes had no time to eat, let alone rest, delivering durians from door to door like it was his livelihood, what he depended on to keep us kids alive, kicking, and complaining about the stench. And whenever the little plastic containers changed hands, the recipient's face would instantly light up, as though bathed in the glow of the durian flesh.

It's amazing how people can bond over something that clogs up your arteries and smells like rotten fish. When my family first moved from Kuala Lumpur to Penang, my parents and their new colleagues would huddle around a table with several of these styrofoam boxes every Friday, heads bent, voices low, passing these containers from person to person like members of a cult going through a secret ritual.

But such was my indifference towards durians that even when I went to university in the UK, I didn't notice that they were selling them in Chinatown until my friend pointed them out to me, three months after I first arrived on British soil. After a year in the land of fish and chips, I had been too busy concentrating on losing my fresher five (the five kilos a university freshman puts on due to too much fast food and a sedentary lifestyle) to be homesick.


12 Raja Kunyit

This life-long indifference towards the fruit continued until I boarded a plane, said my “adieu” to the land that now reminded me of tests and exams, and got back to Malaysia. When I had my first meal at home, my father brought out a box to savour. Deciding that one bite wouldn't make much of a difference to my now-expanded frame, I reached into the box, and pulled out a yellow seed. With no expectations whatsoever, I popped it into my mouth...

And the taste of heaven slid across my tongue. Soft, fluffy goodness that was just perfectly bittersweet, sticking to the roof of my mouth and filling my stomach with a strange, foreign warmth. Right there and then, the smell of kippers and vomit suddenly morphed into something that could be captured in a bottle of perfume and sold for a ridiculous price, but no, that wouldn't have been right, not at all, I thought as I reached for another morsel of fat and gold, and another, and another. Soon, my father and I had polished the box of fruit off by ourselves, and we looked at each other with smug smiles on our faces, like a pair of conspiring thieves.

Mum didn't need to know. This would be our little secret.

To this day, I don't know what part my time abroad played in my change of heart, but now durians are reminders of home for me. There's something about the way they taste, and the way they smell that can only be truly appreciated when you're in a tropical land with only two seasons, summer and summer. And there is something about the creamy, yellow flesh that is the embodiment of a South-east Asian experience. Whispers South-east Asia

Dad, consider me converted.