Saturday, April 27, 2013

A Smell Like None Other

For the last week or so there has been a distinctive new fragrance in the air around markets and grocery stores in Taipei.  Actually, it is more of a stench.  The culprit – Durian fruit.  This big prickly fruit has an unforgettable, unavoidable, and unpleasant odor that can spread across a city block.  The fruit just came in season and has been popping up all over the city recently.  I’ve been totally intrigued– why on earth do people eat something that smells so foul?  Not only that, but it is expensive – one fruit is $300NT or $10 USD. Since I have been fascinated by trying new foods, especially new fruits, here in Taiwan, I had to find out what the stink was about. Today we hesitantly bought some dissected pieces of the fruit at the local grocery store.

The packaging says it all – each chunk of fruit is individually double wrapped in cellophane before wrapping all of the chunks together in more cellophane to minimize the smell.  There is no way to completely mask the odor – it somehow manages to leak through any container.  In order to not infect the entire apartment with the signature smell, we had a little durian picnic on the roof.  When we cut through the several layers of packaging, we realized that we made a very wise decision.  Durian is banned in hotels and on buses for this exact reason.

At this point I should probably make some attempt to describe the Durian’s omnipresent odor.  No, I’ll let some more colorful writers do it for me:

“Its odor is best described as pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock. It can be smelled from yards away” Richard Sterling
"completely rotten, mushy onions." Andrew Zimmerman
"like eating sweet raspberry blancmange in the lavatory" Anthony Burgess
“indescribable, something you will either love or despise. ...Your breath will smell as if you'd been French-kissing your dead grandmother" Anthony Bourdain

Yeah, those give a pretty good idea of how intense and riveting the smell of this fruit can be.  You will love it or hate it, but not fall anywhere in between.  Interestingly, one of the first English writers to describe the fruit was Alfred Wallace in 1856.  Most people from the West find the fruit repulsive, but Wallace loved Durian. Here his description of the fruit:

“The five cells are silky-white within, and are filled with a mass of firm, cream-coloured pulp, containing about three seeds each. This pulp is the edible part, and its consistence and flavour are indescribable. A rich custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but there are occasional wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes. Then there is a rich glutinous smoothness in the pulp which nothing else possesses, but which adds to its delicacy. It is neither acid nor sweet nor juicy; yet it wants neither of these qualities, for it is in itself perfect. It produces no nausea or other bad effect, and the more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop. In fact, to eat Durians is a new sensation worth a voyage to the East to experience. ... as producing a food of the most exquisite flavour it is unsurpassed.

Now that I have tried this powerful fruit, I can make my own pronouncement regarding its flavor.


I am an extremely adventurous eater, as many people can attest, but I did not like Durian.  I got over the smell easily, but the taste was exactly like sour, or rotten, onions.  That is what immediately came to mind even before I read other people’s similar descriptions.  I didn’t stop at one bite – I ate probably a half a pound of the mushy yellow flesh before I called it quits.  Abel was also adventurous enough to take three bites, but then flat-out refused to let me put the fruit anywhere near him after that.

As I sit here and hold back stinky oniony belches, I can say with some confidence that today was my first and last encounter with the durian.  An experience worth having, but not worth repeating. 


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