Durian is a fruit. Some people don't like it and compete with one another to produce disgusting metaphors describing the smell and, if they have gotten that far, the taste of durian. In all honesty, I have never consumed blancmange in an outhouse, nor have I eaten custard laced with Worcestershire sauce, but I have eaten durian and it all seems wide of the mark to me.
There are also people who do like durian - a lot. In Malaysia, where durian approaches being a national obsession, superior trees are named and the fruit is sold for extravagant prices while little more than the size of acorns. When durian prices are high, national economic indicators wobble precariously, and for the two or three months when the season is at its peak, much of the population chronically suffers from mild indigestion produced by over-indulgence at durian feasts.
Durians are melon-sized. The skin is tough and covered with sharp spines; the name comes from the Malay word duri which means thorn or spine. Each fruit contains several seed compartments and it is the pulp surrounding the seeds that is eaten.
Selecting a Durian
When you set out to buy a durian, you confront skin that would be the envy of a rhinoceros. The question is how to find out what is inside.
A ripe durian falls off the tree of its own accord, so underripe fruit rarely appear on the market. Durians, however, vary considerably, and many techniques have been developed to select good specimens. You can smell them, shake them, run a fingernail across the spines and listen to them, and heft them (heavy ones contain more seed and less flesh so lighter ones are preferable). Or you can go halfway across town to the third stall on the second side street past the big tree and ask for Ah Kuci or Tipu or whoever, and tell him to select a fruit for you. These procedures are about as good as choosing your durian at random, but they are much more satisfying.
Buying a Durian
This requires tact and skill. The procedure is as follows: you look at the durian and you look at the dealer. He looks at the durian and he looks at you. He hopes you haven't noticed the worm hole he has plugged up and covered with a leaf. You try M$1. He suddenly forgets that he can speak English. You try M$2 and it begins to come back to him. He suggests M$7, having more facility with that range of numbers. You discover the worm hole. He assures you it does not go through the skin and digs furiously at it with his knife, dropping the price to M$4. You look dubious. He cuts into the durian, opening a flap of skin well away from the aforementioned hole. You don't especially like what you see. He says that now the durian is cut you really ought to take it because he can't sell it to anyone else. You ignore this and go on to the next stall where you smell, shake, listen and heft. Then you look at the dealer. He looks at you.
Opening a Durian
If you are a novice, your durian will probably draw first blood even before you get it home. Then it will lie on the table daring you to do your worst - durians are as bad as coconuts about this, and better equipped to fight back. The durian, however, has fault lines along its skin and will, in the end, break into neat segments. You are assured of winning the war; the question is how much damage the durian will inflict in the course of battle.
Some strategists opt for overwhelming force, attacking with two-foot-long Malay knives known as parang. The problem here is gripping the fruit while you make the assault. You swing, the durian jumps a bit and drives its spines deep into your hand. Meanwhile, the parang has not penetrated the outer shell. Alternatively, the durian spins out of the way and you splinter your table.
Durian sellers use commando tactics: they carry short, thin-bladed knives and make quick, slashing cuts. Don't be deceived by the ease with which they accomplish this. Durian sellers, karate experts, concert pianists and the like may look the same as everyone else, but they possess skills that are beyond the capacity of ordinary mortals.
There are two techniques that do work. One is to take the blunt end of a wooden spoon and probe the spot where a durian's fault lines come together. Many (but far from all) durians succumb and obligingly split open. Should this method fail, your only recourse is to take an ordinary pocket knife and laboriously saw at the durian until it comes open. It is inelegant and purists will scoff, but at least the thing gets done.
Most durian lovers take their fruit straight (one could hardly say "neat") with a mangosteen chaser (see Durian Lore, below). Durian is also eaten along with sticky, glutinous rice steamed in coconut milk and sugar. It lends itself admirably to gluttony, smearing across your face, clinging to your hands, lying heavily in your stomach, producing an aftertaste and leaving behind a vaguely sinful feeling.
Durian is widely available in Malaysia from late April well into July, and again in December. If you arrive at other times of the year all is not lost. You can buy durian ice cream (which is extremely good), or you can try durian-flavored dodol (something of an acquired taste). Dodol is made by cooking glutinous rice that has been ground to a powder, together with coconut milk, palm sugar, and flavouring - often durian flavouring - very slowly until the whole business congeals into a mass the consistency of an enormous jellybean. Dodol will keep for long periods without refrigeration and when the quality is good it tastes much like fresh durian. On the east coast of Malaysia great slabs of dodol are on sale in the markets and are sold by the slice; on the west coast, dodol is normally formed into cylinders and wrapped in cellophane.
Durian is a 'heaty' fruit, which means it is likely to produce a sore throat and raspy voice, and to unbalance the body in a warm direction. To counteract this tendency, something cooling should be consumed, the choice usually being mangosteens or Chinese tea, although salted ice water will do.
Durian is said not to mix well with alcohol, and some authorities claim the combination is lethal. Every year there are reports of persons who have consumed six or seven durians followed by a bottle of old brandy, and then succumbed. Small wonder, say skeptics.
Aphrodisiac qualities are claimed for durian. It is not possible to comment with any certainty on this point, although there has been a vast amount of (largely unreported) research.
In recent years durians have become acceptable companions in most social situations, a welcome contrast to the state of affairs during colonial times, when durians were barred from most public places, were omitted from the guest lists of major functions, and were generally thought unsuitable for polite company. Those of the old school who continued to consort with durians were forced to do so surreptitiously, and reprobates who dared appear on public thoroughfares accompanied by their durians were subject to scathing comment. Although those dark days are past, it is important to note two major exceptions to the general relaxing of restraints.
Airlines have adopted a short-sighted, sharp-sniffing, anti-durian policy, claiming that passengers will refuse to fly in durian-scented skies. The pleas of durian fanciers that special carriers be provided have thus far fallen on deaf ears: your Pekinese, yes; your durian, no. At present, the only course open to travellers who find the prospect of being without their own personal supply of durian unbearable, is to freeze the fruit and carry it on board in a vacuum flask, pretending it is herbal tea or chicken soup. (The rumour that airports are planning to install electronic durian detectors has been reliably reported to be false.)
The other focus of anti-durian sentiment is the hotel industry. Even in this enlightened and liberated age, most establishments refuse to allow either escorted or unescorted durians upon the premises. A gentleman who enters the portals of a public hostelry with a durian on his arm is likely to encounter a stiffly raised eyebrow and to be told, firmly, that his companion is unwelcome. It may be just as well, for even the most hardened enthusiast would admit that few things in life are more unpleasant than awakening to face the remains of durian debauchery.
DATE: February 1984
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