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South East Asia's “King of Fruit”

By Annette Greene

While vacationing on the island of Koh Samui, Thailand, some friends and I came across a fruit seller with a truckload of durian. Curious about this unusually large fruit (known as the "king of fruits" in Southeast Asia) with its dangerous-looking brown or green spiky husk, we handed over the Thai equivalent of four dollars and watched while the man cracked one open with a large machete and handed us the pieces. The distinctive odour from its cream-coloured pulp (a cross, perhaps, between almonds and rotten onions) so repulsed us that no one in our group could muster up enough courage to taste it. Thanking the vendor very much, we gave the fruit back to him and walked away. He must have thought we were very strange customers, indeed!

A few years later my husband, James, and I moved to Singapore and had the opportunity to try durian again shortly after we arrived. Vivian, the office manager at the publishing company where James worked, had taken it upon herself to help us get acclimatized to our new environment. She showed us the sights of the city, took us out to sample local cuisine at outdoor hawker centres, and even helped us shop for furniture. One evening, after a simple dinner of chicken rice washed down with ice kachung (a bowl of shaved ice topped with red beans, corn, mixed fruit and sweet evaporated milk), we happened to pass a durian stand.

“Have you tried durian?” asked Vivian.

“No, we almost did once, but the smell was too bad. ”

“Well, let's get one and I'll show you how to eat it. We Singaporeans love durian and they are now in season. ”

Vivian explained that the best way to choose a good durian was by checking the stem: a large, solid stem was a definite sign of freshness. We were also advised to shake the fruit to listen for the sounds of seeds inside. Hearing them would indicate that the fruit may be overripe and the pulp too dried out. We bought a large durian to bring back to our apartment; it had been long enough since our experience in Thailand and we were more willing now to try new things. Luckily, we were driving because it is against the law in Singapore to transport durian by bus or rail; there are even signs in the Singapore public transportation systems that clearly indicate that no durians are allowed. Another big faux pas is opening the fruit indoors for, if you do, its obnoxious smell will linger for a long time.

At home, we carried the fruit out onto our patio, opened it up, and proceeded to each take a section. The smell was still strong but we got past it, eager this time to try the fruit that the local people covet. Vivian told us that it is not unusual for large families to buy five or six durian at a time to share. We had never tasted anything so exquisite. It was custard-like and creamy like a very ripe avocado, sweet but not too sweet. James decided that the best thing to go with it would be a drink of brandy. Our Singaporean friend was horrified.                

“Oh, no! You can't drink alcohol and eat durian at the same time! ”

“Why not? ” asked James.

“Because you'll die… or at least get very sick from it. All Singaporeans know this. ”

James laughed off Vivian's warning as he poured himself a big glass of brandy. The three of us proceeded to eat a lot of the fruit, but it was still hard to finish as it was very rich and filling. Despite Vivian's warnings, James did not die. He didn't feel any ill effects whatsoever.

After that experience, whenever friends and relatives visited us in Singapore, we'd drive down to Chinatown and show them the sights, including the durian stalls with their simple wooden stools and tables. If our visitors were adventurous (and they usually were), we'd stop and park, pick out a nice big durian and proceed to share it. We grew to love this fruit more and more as time wore on, and we appreciated living in a part of the world where it was readily available.

Nowadays one can find durian for sale in Asian markets in parts of Canada and the U.S. They are expensive and I'm not sure how they taste after being transported so far from home. When I see them, I am reminded of those warm, tropical evenings in Singapore when we would sit outdoors and savour this delicacy. James still reminisces about drinking brandy with his durian; however, after that first time, he realized that he didn't need a digestif to chase down this stinky but delicious fruit. A nice cool glass of water would do just fine.

Annette Greene is a freelance writer and educator from Vancouver B.C. She lived in Asia for 18 years and currently lives in Washington D.C. She writes on a variety of topics including health and wellness, education, travel, and cross-cultural communication.