Durian, known as the 'king of fruits' in south-east Asia has, to put it mildly, a distinctive odour. ‘Dis-STINK-tive’ would be more appropriate, many might say.
“How can you put something that smells so bad in your mouth?” a non-durian lover once asked me. “Well, what about washed rind cheese?”, I countered. “Or cooked cauliflower. Or gorgonzola.”
Durian has some pluses though. It makes up for its ugly look – picture a pineapple on a really bad hair day – and whiffy aroma, with a creamy sweet flesh. In fact once people know the taste-sensation in store, many quickly go from 'ugh! what's that dreadful smell?' to 'durian! where is it?'.
On a recent trip to Penang, Malaysia, as we leave Batu Ferringhi on the north of the island we know what we are craving. Durian. But it’s a problem. If we buy one of these huge thorny khaki beauties from a roadside stall the hotel will never let us inside with it. If we eat it in the rental car, the company will possibly add a surcharge.
Around the north-western tip of this lovely island, often called the Pearl of the Orient, the jungle is tangled with creepers, denser than on the eastern hugely-developed side. Here, nets hang hammock-like beneath giant jackfruit and durian trees to catch the heavy fruit, and somewhere in the shadows grow nutmeg and clove trees.
We drive on, past crude wooden roadside stalls sheltering mounds of this thorny football-sized fruit and are finally rewarded with the answer to our craving.
The 10 hectare Tropical Fruit Farm at 250 metres altitude, overlooks deep jungled valleys that disappear kilometres away into a glimpse of water and the haze of Georgetown, the capital, on the east coast. It should be called Eden because almost every known tropical fruit grows here.
In the farm shop we discover dried and fresh fruits, bunches of rambutans and mangosteens, pineapples and tiny bananas in crates and there is a whole stand of local nutmeg oils and balm. In a chilled cabinet, spotted and weirdly coloured Vietnamese dragonfruit and other fresh fruits are laid out ready to combine on fruit platters.
A spiky mound of durian lies on the floor to one side, and instantly we know what we will be ordering. The durian season runs from the end of February to August. It’s April, so we are in luck.
We select a top-grade one for under A$5 and the assistant chops it open to reveal smooth yellow segments buried in cavities inside. The rest they can leave to us. Seated outside at shaded picnic tables overlooking that magnificent view we pick out the creamy flesh slowly, eating with our fingers and dropping the seeds into a basket below the table. Bliss!
The smell? Well, it’s been described as eating first class custard in a sewer, but that’s too extreme, we decide.
“They smell like hell, but taste like heaven,” says someone else. Despite this, durian’s name has nothing to do with either. It just means ‘thorny fruit’.
It’s pungent, it’s exotic. Faintly redolent of rotting onion with a slight tang of sulphur. Not what you normally associate with fine fruit, but this is Malaysia. We’re in the tropics and this is durian.
And – for us – we are indulging in truly the king of fruits!