The surprising reason I haven’t tried durian

Long live the King

Durian: the most difficult to try the king of fruits

Durian is an interesting fruit. It’s a fruit that conjures up a few different images: the business end of a medieval mace perhaps, Andrew Zimmern vomiting on cable television, a beautiful muslim woman in Southern Thailand wielding a machete with surgeon-like skill at a fruit stand, and a million other scenarios those of us who like to watch television about food could pull from our brain vaults at a moment’s notice.

When it comes to durian, though, it’s not the images that matter. The one thing that everyone talks about is the smell. Anthony Bourdain describes it as the smell of a rotting dumpster, but claims the fruit is delicious. I’m pretty sure Andrew Zimmern, who will eat anything including uncooked testicles and other offal bits used the word “putrid” before vomiting up his serving of this majestic beast of a fruit. One of my Korean coworkers tells the students (in Korean) something that includes “hwa-jang-shil” which translates to “toilet” in English, so I can only imagine it’s not something nice.

I don’t find the smell all that terrible, and neither does Carolyn. I think the smell of durian could be described like this. You know your grandmother’s oldsmobile that she owned from 1980 until 1998? The one with the pleather seats that was always kept clean but smelled of granny’s car specifically because it was rarely used and the interior baked in the hot Texas sun all day every day? Now, if you can imagine what that car would smell like if you spilled about ten gallons of that canned Hawaiian Punch (yeah, the red one) in the car and let it sit in the hot Texas sun for a whole summer. You’d get a concentrated mix of granny’s car and Hawaiian punch delivered to your nostrils upon opening the door that could probably be smelled from space. Yes I realize that there are no smells in the vacuum of space. That’s what it smells like. From like a hundred yards away.

I wanted to try durian really bad when we visited Thailand this summer. I had a year’s worth of regret built up inside me for not trying it in Bali last year. I had a chance to buy it, but the gal at the fruit stand was expertly slicing a pineapple for too long and it was late and we just wanted to lay down in bed. I should have waited, because I had no idea how difficult it would be to try this fruit and that those difficulties would keep me once again from experiencing the stench of durian in my own gullet.

No durian for you!

The truth about why I haven’t tried durian

  1. Durian are really big. They have a hard shell. We did carry a knife for one night after we bought it to cut fruit, but we didn’t see any durian on that outing. Dammit. Why not take the durian back to your room with you? Well that’s point number two.
  2. You can’t take a durian into your hotel room to cut it with the knife you bought and kept in your room. Yeah, you left your fruit knife in the room because you don’t want to walk around with a shiv all night. Dumb mistake, n00b. No durian for you.
  3. Taking a durian into your hotel room, public transportation, or just about anywhere enclosed is a no-no. One of our guesthouses in Phuket made it clear that there would be a 2,000 baht adjustment made if durian was taken into the room. I guess that smell really sticks. Don’t leave that fruit knife in your room if you want to take on the king of fruits.
  4. There’s no trash cans, and I can’t stand to litter.
  5. If you try to order a sexy durian dessert, expect it to be sold out. I tried to order one the last night we were in Phuket, and I’ll be damned if there wasn’t any available.

So I’m a disappointment to adventurous food nerds everywhere. I missed my opportunity to try durian. Hopefully, one day soon, we’ll be back in Southeast Asia, I’ll have a damned machete or something in my back pocket, and the gal at the fruit stand won’t be spiral slicing a pineapple at a late hour at night when I’m ready for bed. C’est la vie, I guess.


The world is delicious: Five countries, five favorite foods

We left the United States in February, 2011 and over the course of the almost two years we’ve been in Asia we’ve eaten a lot of things. It’s basically impossible to try and pick a favorite for each place we’ve been, but I’m going to try and do that right now to let you imagine what our taste buds have experienced over the past couple of years. A few of these are staple foods that the local people in each locale eat all the time because they’re damn cheap and tasty, and I think that’s always a good place to start when exploring a cuisine.

된장 찌개 Doenjang jigae - Hello Coo by avlxyz, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  avlxyz 

Korea: Doenjang Jjigae (soybean paste stew)

My pick for Korea is doenjang jjigae, a cheap, hearty stew of fermented soybean paste, tofu, cucumber, and probably kimchi. Why not the awesome super fun Korean Barbecue you might have imagined? Well, because when we go out for Korean barbecue the thing we enjoy the most is the doenjang jjigae they serve when our meat is halfway gone. It’s spicy, it has a deep flavor with a hint of acid, and it’s what I crave on those Korean winter nights. It’s delicious, spicy, and something you can only get in Korea, or maybe in a Korean restaurant at home (we’re sure as hell going to find a place to get it or figure out how to make it after we get home.)

nasi goreng

Nasi Goreng – my taste of Indonesia

Indonesia: Nasi Goreng

Indonesia screams nasi goreng to me. It’s simple, hearty, dirt cheap, and tastes great. Imagine if you will fried rice, sambal, and bok choi stir fried together, perhaps with prawns or an egg, and served with shrimp crackers. Using the shrimp cracker, you scoop up as much rice as the cracker can hold, and put the whole thing in your mouth. It’s a satisfying way to eat (you know, with your hands), and this is a dish I’ve only had in Indonesia. Just thinking about how it tasted right now I’m imagining the cool breeze blowing through the palm trees and the fields of rice making that beautiful “whooosh” sound as the blades slap together. Damn. Now I want some Nasi Goreng and a bintang beer.

My Penang curry with chicken

Thailand: Penang Curry

My choice for Thailand is kind of ironic, since it’s named for an island in Malaysia. Oops. Penang Curry is basically a Thai Red Curry with peanuts. You wouldn’t imagine that a few peanuts could change the flavor of a curry so much, I mean, there’s more strong flavors swimming around in a curry than you can count on one hand. Lemongrass, red chili, galangal, and Thai shallot aren’t weak flavors by any means, you wouldn’t think that peanuts would make a difference, but they really, really change the hell out of the profile of the dish. Thinking of a curry like this and the smell of the fresh slices of red chili on top sharply focusing your olfactory system on the mess of flavors you’re about to slop over some rice makes me want to lay down on a beach like you wouldn’t believe. I’d take any beach in Southern Thailand right now, thank you very much.

Assam Laksa

Malaysia: Assam Laksa

According to Anthony Bourdain’s wonderful television program, Laksa comes from Kuching, Malaysia, but I’ve only had it just outside the airport in Kuala Lumpur. I’m not really sure what was in it. I’m guessing there was beef, fish sauce, chilis, and I really have no clue what else. This is a dish that made me feel dirty, but in a good way, because my taste buds were horrified at first, then submitted to the dark magic in the hell broth that was dark as night. Before leaving the U.S. I would have simply been too afraid to try it. Boy am I happy we did. If we go to Malaysia this winter I’m going to eat the shit out of some Laksa.

The most amazing bowl of ramen ever.

The most amazing bowl of ramen ever.

Japan: Ramen

I bet you thought I’d pick sushi for Japan, didn’t you? Well, no. The most magical thing I ate in Japan wasn’t the beautiful, beautiful sushi we had in Osaka. It wasn’t the amazing yakitori we purchased from a street vendor in Kyoto. It wasn’t the fresh takoyaki pulled off of the grill on Dotonbori. It was a bowl of ramen we had across the street from the place we would later get takoyaki on Dotonbori. This was the most amazing soup of any kind I’ve ever had in or around my mouth. It was stunning. The depth of its savory, porky flavor was unreachable. I felt like my brain was being sucked into the bowl with every sip of broth. The noodles were fresh, and the whole thing was hearty. You could probably cut the broth with a knife, it was that thick. I’m afraid that barring a return to Dotonbori, I will never have a bowl of ramen so amazing again.

There you have it, five countries, and five foods. For me these will always be the flavors of their respective countries, some pungent, some mild, some perfectly balanced, some so far out of balance that they take you on a trip to a place you’ve never been before. Food is pretty magical like that.