Durians: A Prickly Proposition

Nov 18, 2010
*Special to asia!

Is the durian a king of stink or a heavenly one? To me the choice is obvious.

I was at the funeral service of an 85-year-old family friend when a line from his granddaughter’s eulogy made me smile through my tears.

“Apart from God and durian, Kong Kong loved Ma Ma the most.” “Amen to that,” I thought and yes, I would not mind having the heavenly scented fruit mentioned in my eulogy either.

It was a case of love at first bite for me when Pa brought home two durians wrapped in newspaper and I first encountered the thick, custard-like pulp. I was about as tall as our pet Alsatian which looked on as intently as I did at the proceedings on the kitchen floor. A towel, a hammer and a chisel were used to pry open the “armour”. Beyond the thorns lay the “yellow gold” I have craved ever since. After I licked the last morsel off my fingers I was taught to wash my hands in water collected in the durian “shells” so that the smell of the fruit would not linger on them. I was also taught to drink a very dilute salt solution to counter the “heatiness” of the fruit.

I recall when I was working in a newsroom, my reporter friend getting a comment from the police on a spat between two fruit sellers who had swung durians at each other.

“Will they be charged with assault with a dangerous weapon?” she had asked. The answer was, “Durian is not on the list of dangerous weapons... Let me get back to you.” Anyone can see that it ought to be on the list of dangerous weapons. To have one fall off a branch onto your head would be fatal. Two durians swinging from chains would make a dent in a coat of armour. But I digress.



Enough flashback for now, let’s cut to the present.

We have the habit in this part of the world of running durian taste tests on Westerners. In my opinion, pop kitten Katy Perry failed the test when she said durian “smelt of poop” while in Singapore to perform at SingFest.

Some other foreigners fared better. On a local TV programme, two foreign Youth Olympic Games athletes were asked to take part in a durian eating contest. Holding her nose throughout, the Caucasian girl declined, so the local TV host took her place and tried to gobble down the durian pulp as fast as he could. Surprisingly he was beaten by the American pentathlete Nathan Schrimsher, 18, who lives in the desert town of Roswell in the US, a town known for lionizing close encounters of the third kind.

Speaking to The Sunday Times before coming to Singapore, Nathan had said, “I've heard so much about the country. I really can't wait to try durian! I’m willing to try anything. Even Andrew Zimmern could not stomach the fruit, so I want to beat him.'

He was referring to the host of the food documentary Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, which has featured stinky tofu and bull's testicles.

To me, the durian’s reputation had been besmirched by the episode. I would have durian featured on a programme about divine desserts not bizarre foods.

In my opinion, the bittersweet taste of the “musang king” variety in particular rivals that of the most sophisticated French almond flavoured pudding.

A quick explanation about the origin of the name of this particular cultivar: A specimen was first spotted in Gua Musang, a district in Kelantan, Malaysia, and so it was named Musang King. A musang is a common palm civet (cat). ”Musang King” was transliterated into the Chinese “Mao San Wang” which was in turn translated into the English “Cat Mountain King”.

Not to worry if you are confused. The proof of the pudding is in the eating of it. You just have to taste a little to know why durian is called the “king of fruit” in Southeast Asia, and some say, the world. Cat Mountain King durian has fans in high places.

When newspapers reported in mid-July this year that Macau’s casino king Stanley Ho had sent his private jet to Singapore to pick up some 88 “mao san wang” durians for his guests, it caused a spike in the price of the fruit here and in Malaysia.

Malaysian Chinese-language daily China Press reported that Mr Ho's men had bought about US$2,065 worth of the durian from the 818 Durian Stall at Telok Kurau Road.

Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing reportedly was presented with 10 durians from the stash.

As durians are not allowed on commercial flights, Mr Ho had to send his private jet for the pick-up. In Singapore, I have heard of people in expensive sports cars parking along the edge of the forest reserve in Singapore where there are wild durian trees waiting for the fruit to drop. Society’s elite don’t seem to mind their planes and automobiles smelling for days.

And I completely agree with them. The smell of durain may be hellish but the taste is divine.

vivienne khooOnce a lifestyle editor at a website, a newspaper journalist and a food editor, Vivienne Khoo writes about luxury hotels, food and travel whenever she is not sub-editing. The perfume industry and essential oils are her pet topics at the moment.

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