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Forbidden Fruit: What’s Up With Durian?!

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Banned from some fancy hotels, offensive to many–durian just might be the Ozzy Osbourne of the fruit world. Grown primarily throughout southeast Asia, it’s said to be the king of fruits. Even amongst those well versed in extreme cuisines, durian often has polarizing reactions.

No stranger to eating exotic foods, here’s Andrew Zimmern’s reaction upon tasting it:

In his description of durian, Anthony Bourdain once said, “Your breath will smell as if you’d been French-kissing your dead grandmother.” And he considers himself a fan of the fruit. Other enthusiasts have more appealing ways of describing it–Lindsay Gasik says it’s like “creme brûlée on a tree” or “a dark chocolate pudding with caramel sauce” with it having “a sweet almost bubble gum flavor with little hints of something strange going on, like little hints of sweat or something like that. Like sweaty bubble gum.” (Okay, maybe that last one isn’t so appetizing.)

Gasik tried durian for the first time in 2009 after buying some in an Asian grocery store in Eugene, Oregon. For her, it was love at first bite. Although her husband, Rob Culclasure, was initially less enthusiastic, he came to love it eventually and they’ve been traveling and writing about the fruit ever since.

Gasik estimates that she and Culclasure have visited twelve countries and sampled hundreds of different kinds of durian over the past five years. Now, Gasik has written The Durian Tourist’s Guide To Thailand, a book she describes as a Lonely Planet for durian.  It offers helpful hints and information for travelers visiting Thailand, including recommendations for the best times of the year to visit, festivals to attend, types to try, useful phrases like (I) thong gan ja gin thurian (I want to eat durian) along with some etiquette tips that will help visitors mind their Ps and Qs when encountering the king of fruit.

What exactly gives durian its distinct scent? A research study identified 41 different chemical compounds, eight of which had not been previously identified in durian before; the researchers also discovered four chemical compounds that were unknown prior to the study. Some of the most pronounced scents had descriptions that included fruity, skunky, sulfurous, buttery and honey. Interestingly, their research suggested that durian’s scent may not be attributed to an individual compound; rather, it may be the combination that creates the smell that people either love or loathe.

There may be an option for those who would like to try durian but are apprehensive due to its smell. After spending over three decades researching the fruit, Thai horticulturist Dr. Songpol Somsri has created a nearly odorless durian. Not to be confused with Chanel No. 5, the variety known as Chantaburi No. 1 was named after Somsri’s home province.

A durian lover himself, he’s aware that its smell has its detractors and he wanted to create an option for them. The mild smelling durian was created by crossing over 90 varieties of durian, some of which are only found in the wild. There were specifications for the kinds used, he explains, “that the criteria for early, moderate and late maturity, good looking, good taste with sweet and creamy, thick flesh and small seeds.” Although Chantaburi No. 1 was created in 2006, it takes about 5-7 years for the trees to produce fruit. Once they do, Somsri tells me he expects the mildly scented version of durian to be available in markets.

Want to find out what all the stink is about? Try this recipe by acclaimed chef Andy Ricker:

Durian Custard
(from Pok Pok by Andy Ricker with J.J. Goode via Andrew Zimmern)

Servings: 6 as a hefty snack, and 12 as dessert

Ingredient List

1  1/2 pounds palm sugar
3 tablespoons water
1  1/2 teaspoons tapioca starch
4 ounces defrosted frozen durian flesh
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons eggs (about 5 large)
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon unsweetened coconut cream (preferably boxed)
2 fresh or frozen pandan leaves
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Sweet Sticky Rice, warm

Instructions:

Soften the Palm Sugar. Put the palm sugar in a large microwavable bowl, sprinkle on 2 tablespoons of the water, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and microwave on low just until the sugar has softened (not liquefied), 10 to 30 seconds. Pound the mixture in a mortar (or mash it in the bowl) until you have a smooth paste. Covered, it will keep soft for up to 2 days at room temperature.

Make the Custard

Pour about 3 inches of water into a wide aluminum Chinese steamer, insert the steamer layer, cover, and bring the water to a boil over high heat.

In a small bowl, stir the tapioca starch with the remaining 1 tablespoon of water until it’s smooth and lump free. In a large bowl, combine the durian, eggs, coconut cream, pandan leaves, 1  1/2 cups of the softened palm sugar (reserving extra for another purpose, like papaya salad), salt, and the tapioca mixture.

Use your hands to squeeze and firmly scrunch the ingredients together, especially the pandan, so its flavor infuses into the mixture, until there are no lumps of sugar or durian remaining, about 5 minutes.

Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer into the large heatproof bowl or the two smaller bowls, stirring and smooshing to extract as much liquid as you can and discarding the remaining solids. The mixture should reach a depth of approximately 2 inches. If you’re using two smaller bowls, you might have to cook in batches.

Decrease the heat under the steamer slightly so the water is still boiling but not wildly. Gently stir the mixture, then carefully add the bowl to the steamer basket. Cover the steamer and cook just until the custard has set (a toothpick inserted into the center should come out clean; the custard should jiggle when you gently shake the bowl), 45 minutes to 1 hour. You’ll notice a few nooks and crannies on the surface. That’s fine.

Use oven mitts or towel-wrapped hands to carefully remove the bowl from the steamer. Let the custard cool to room temperature. You can store the custard in the bowl, covered, or in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 5 days. I like to let it come to room temperature before serving, but it’s also good slightly chilled.

Serve the Dish

Put about 1 cup of the sticky rice on each of 6 plates, gently press it to make an even layer, then top each with a scoop (about 1/2 cup, if you’re counting) of the custard.

Image Credits: ZooFari via Wikimedia Commons, Hafiz Issadeen, author.

Layla Eplett About the Author: Layla Eplett writes about the anthropology of food. She has a Masters in Social Anthropology of Development from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies and loves getting a taste of all kinds of culture--gastronomic, traditional, and sometimes accidentally, bacterial. Find her at Fare Trade. Follow on Twitter @LaylaEplett.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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