When we were kids visiting our relatives in Thailand, there would come the inevitable afternoon or evening when a large tupperware container was brought out from the fridge and placed on the lazy susan in front of the hungry eyes of a group of adults.
"Do you want to try some?" someone would invariably ask me and my American-born siblings. The first few times, we were, of course, curious enough to hang around and see what mysterious Thai delight the container held but cautious enough to not make any promises.
The seal on the container would be broken with a satisfying gasp of air that released an odor so horrific that it momentarily blinded us from seeing the golden egg-like pods nestled inside. Durian. The dreaded Durian: a Southeast Asian fruit which odor is reminiscent of rotting fish or garbage on a hot day or the Bangkok sewer system. It was enough to make an 8 year old gag.
"Do you want to try some?"
"You're going to eat that?"
We'd flee to the bougainvillea-covered corners of the yard while the adults savored their fruity treat. It's what some might call an acquired taste.... or an acquired smell.
Durian, or the "king of the fruit" as it's known in Thailand, is famous through Southeast Asia for its pungent odor, its intimidatingly spiky exterior, and it's rich, custard-like flavor and texture. It is the odor that makes it banned in many hotels, on some airlines, and in various public places. As an adult living in Thailand, I finally got the gumption to try some. It was love at first bite. It's surprisingly creamy for a fruit, reminiscent of perfectly ripe avocado. And the infamous odor reveals itself in a surprisingly floral taste on the tongue. It are these subtleties that are missed when you smell without tasting the fruit.
Needless to say, Durian is a little hard to come by in the States and so it was not without some bittersweet disappointment when I woke one morning a few weeks ago thinking of nothing other than the sweet yellow nuggets of fruity goodness.
Fortunately, there is an Asian market near us that rivals the best markets Stateside. Unfortunately, all of their Durian is frozen -- either as the whole fruit or already dissected and hermetically entombed in plastic containers.
After reading some on-line commentary, I opted for the whole fruit, which, some claimed, was more likely to retain the taste through the freezing process.
Needless to say, my husband was not thrilled when he saw the porcupine-esque shape sitting on our kitchen counter. He tried to ban Durian from our house. "I'll eat it outside," I promised. A day later it was thawed out enough to take my clever and cutting board out back.
Durian is the reason why I adore Anthony Bourdain and loathe Andrew Zimmern. Bourdain revels in this tropical delight. (Fast forward to 5:45 or click here to see Bourdain enjoy durian.)
Zimmern, on the other hand, has the gall to spit out the King of the Fruits in front of a durian farmer.
I'm not suggesting that everyone needs to run out and try durian, but if you're the host of a show about eating strange and unusual foods, surely you can choke back a piece of fruit. He fails to do this not just one time, but a second time when he runs across his arch-nemesis again in Chinatown.
It was in the spirit of Bourdain's culinary adventures that I broke open the frozen durian on our picnic table. Frozen, it had lost a little of its structure and potency, but it sated my craving and, as I promised my husband, I finished all six magical pods contained within in the first 24 hours of cracking it open. I had a few nuggets that had to be stored in the fridge overnight. In spite of wrapping them in plastic wrap and foil, my husband still complained that the kitchen smelled like a landfill. I had to agree.
I'm sure that some of my Asian relatives would have warned me that it was a bad idea to eat durian, which has heating qualities, while I was pregnant. Or at least they'd say that I should balance the heat with the cooling effects of a fruit like mangosteen. As much as I'd love nothing more than to gorge myself on mangosteen, they are only recently available in a few places in the states and exorbitantly priced. Besides, I like to keep in mind a more Western idea that what your baby is exposed to in the womb and while nursing can shape the eating habits they'll have during their lifetime. I'm hoping ours has a whole lot more Bourdain and a whole lot less Zimmern.