Note from Mark: This is a guest post from my friend Lindsay at Year of the Durian, who not only has a passion for durian, but she’s also the most knowledgable and experienced durian eater I know. Being a durian lover myself, I was excited to read this article. Over to Lindsay now…
Your curiosity is piqued.
You’re on the prowl for a new culinary adventure.
You’ve been scanning this site searching for the next exotic taste sensation and you’ve made up your mind. You’re going to take the plunge and taste the King of Fruit, the Durian.
Its ungodly odor regularly causes evacuations in hospitals, shopping malls and office buildings. It postpones planes. It’s banned in subways, buses and hotels across Southeast Asia. Heck, even Andrew Zimmern can’t stomach the durian.
But despite its bad reputation, tasting a durian is a lot tamer than a lot of the exotic foodstuffs Mark has eaten.
For one, durian doesn’t have an exoskeleton to go crunch when you take a bite. Once you chop through those threatening spikes, the durian is a soft, cream-filled delight that isn’t scary or particularly disgusting at all.
That is, if you get a good one, and most durian newbies don’t.
They get one that’s so under ripe it tastes like eggs gone wrong or one that’s been left in the tropical sun until it’s oozing. Then they go home thinking durian is just as terrible as everyone says.
It’s like if you’d never tasted cheese before and someone gave you a slimy stick of string cheese that had been baking on the car dash board on a particularly hot summer day. Would you go home thinking that cheese is awesome? Probably not.
Finding a perfectly delicious durian can be difficult even for me, and I’ve spent the last two years tromping through the markets and jungles of Asia on an obsessive durian scavenger hunt.
I believe that everyone can come to appreciate durian.
Whether you’ve been knocking around Asia for a while or salivating over Mark’s culinary adventures from the safety of home, I want your first durian experience to be as totally awesome as possible.
Here are my tips to make sure you enjoy your first taste of durian.
1. Don’t Expect It To Taste Like Other Fruit
Until you’ve had durian, there’s no way to guess what it tastes like.
A big mistake is expecting durian to be like other fruits. In the West, our fruits are juicy, slightly acidic, and sweet in a one-dimensional, sucrose way. Durian is not. A bite of durian is a creamy explosion of incongruent flavors that lights up taste receptors all over the tongue.
No food in the Western palate really compares well to durian. None. Zilch. Cheese comes close – sometimes. Butterscotch pudding – occasionally. Onions caramelized in wine – it depends.
Durian is a strange combination of savory, sweet, and creamy all at once.
A durian is supposed to have subtle hints of chives mixed with powdered sugar. It’s supposed to taste like diced garlic and caramel poured into whipped cream.
So relax and let the cacophony of flavors blow you away. Durian is different (in a good way).
2. Choose The Right Durian For Your Personal Preferences
We’re all a little different. My little brother likes tart Granny Smith apples. Personally, I love sweet crunchy Fujis and Galas. Somebody out there can’t get enough of those mealy Red Delicious.
Just like apples, there are many varieties of durian ranging from soft as dark chocolate whipped cream to crisp like a caramel apple. There are some types of durian you may never learn to like, in the same way some of us will never understand the buzz about goat cheese. And that’s totally okay.
Liking a durian the first time has a lot to do with choosing the right one for you.
With literally hundreds of durians to choose from and flavors ranging from peanut butter pound cake to chocolate liquor to caramelized onion omelets to vanilla frosting, there’s sure to be one that makes you close your eyes and go “Mmmmmm.”
The variety is immense, and if you want to experience the full range flavors you’ll need to do a little internet research. In general two categories to choose between are durians that are either “wet” or “dry” in texture, or ones with a predominantly “sweet” or “bitter” flavor. If you think avocados are slimy and gross, stick with “dry” durians. Just ask the durian seller for help, but be aware that not all durian sellers have your best interest in mind.
3. Avoid Getting Taken Advantage Of
Durian is a high end commodity.
In some places people pay crazy amounts of money for a good one. People have stabbed each other over durian. But like pearls or anything highly coveted you can get sold a lot of fakes.
As a newcomer to durian you are a sucker, and everybody in the durian business can see it. So when a tourist heads toward a durian stall, too often the seller’s thinking he can sell you anything because you haven’t a clue and won’t like it anyway.
He’s right. Most tourists have no idea what a durian should be like. And if he always gives tourists his worst durians, they’ll always make a yuck face and walk away. Then his theory has been proven correct, creating a vicious cycle.
The best way to deal with this is to go to a durian seller with a good reputation, or go with a friend who knows their durian. Until you know what to look for, avoid buying durian from small carts wheeling through tourist areas.
If you’re on your own you can still get a good durian. Just exude a little confidence. Handle the durian. Feel the spikes. Smell it. The durian seller will probably respect you more and will give you a better fruit. Just make sure to keep a look out for warning signs of a durian that’s just plain bad.
4. Don’t Taste A Yucky Durian First
The worst thing you can do if you want a good first impression is to taste a durian so downright nasty we durian fanatics wouldn’t touch it with a five foot straw.
Overripe durians will taste like B.O. and vinegar.
Durians with fungus spots or mold on the shell will taste watery and – you guessed it – moldy. Durians picked under ripe may not ripen properly and can have no flavor at all, or a an unpleasant undertone that tastes like metallic scrambled eggs.
There are a few surefire clues that a durian is bad. Avoid any durian that has the following characteristics:
- Is the stem a totally wrinkled up, dark brown wisp? It’s too old.
- Does it have big spots of discoloration on the spikes? It’s infected with fungus.
- Is it splitting wide open? It’s too old.
- Has someone else already opened it and rejected it? You should probably reject it too. (Does not apply to Thailand)
- Are there holes drilled through the thick spiny shell? It’s probably infested with caterpillars or mealy bugs. Unless you think bug poo is cool, reject.
- When you touch the durian flesh with one finger, is it like touching a cream-colored rock? Reject it.
- Is the flesh so soft it’s translucent and a little runny? Try to find one that’s slightly more firm.
There are a number of other things to look out for, but those are the main ones. For more check out How To Choose a Perfectly Ripe Durian.
5. Visit A Durian Expert or Go Straight To The Farm
For the best first experience, go to a well-known durian seller or go straight to the farm.
Durians don’t last long in the hot sun, and the fresher the better. Durians eaten on the farm usually taste better because they haven’t been picked under ripe or allowed to ferment on a truck in the tropical heat.
In addition, by going to the farm you can see for yourself how well cared for the trees are and if any unhealthy chemicals are being used. It’s an enriching experience to see the fruits hanging on the trees moments before consumption, or even getting the chance to harvest the durian yourself.
If you can’t get to the farm, try to find a really renown durian seller. Choosing the perfect durian is a bit of an art. Some durian sellers have been opening durian for a half a century, and have phenomenal noses. Using their keen sense of smell, they can differentiate between a durian with the flavor of Fruit Loops and one that tastes like a Snickers bar. They’re amazing.
You really can’t go wrong if you visit one of these guys. He (or she) will reject the nasty durians for you. He’ll set you up with the durian that’s the right fit for your taste preferences. You’ll need to pay a little bit more for the service, but it’s worth it because the seller genuinely wants you to have the best possible experience. Just like me.
Who’s ready to eat durian now?
All you durian lover’s go check out Lindsay’s awesome blog. Also a couple weeks ago, Lindsay was in Bangkok, and we went on a durian adventure to a farm in Nonthaburi… full article and video coming soon…