Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Borneo 4 - DURIAN

My first (and perhaps only) taste of durian

Durian gets its own post because... durian blew my mind.

The backstory to this is that before we embarked on our holiday, Marc and I were traversing the internet for things we should do while away and I think it was he who brought up the topic of durian. Durian is available in Australia so it's hardly a holiday-specific thing to do. I had never given it much thought in the past aside from "oh, it's that prickly thing that stinks" and I wouldn't be surprised if that's how many people think of it.

Marc delved further into the topic and shared some Wikipaedia quotes that very effectively sparked my interest.

I won't repeat everything that Wiki has to say about durian but noteable descriptions include...

Pleasant descriptors:
  • "a rich custard highly flavoured with almonds"
  • and um... that's all I could find.
Unpleasant descriptors:
  • "completely rotten, mushy onions"
  • "pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock" 
  • "your breath will smell as if you'd been French-kissing your dead grandmother"

Well. What can I say? I just HAD TO TRY IT.

It wasn't as easy as we thought it would be. There were no signs of it in Singapore although we weren't trying very hard. We did see many signs banning durian from hotel rooms and this further added to its notoriety.

None were found in Kota Kinabalu although the waiter at Alu Alu Restaurant on Gayana Eco Resort did tell us it was in season (we later heard from someone else that it wasn't in season; so who knows). He also first eluded to the theory that durian + alcohol = bad. The waiter's story was that both foods make you 'hot' so in combination, you get 'overheated' and sick. We later heard this reaffirmed by our Intrepid tour guide although she went furthur and suggested that durian + something as light as beer could = death. DEATH. And that this had actually happened to a few locals.

Now, I am a skepic by nature and I wasn't quick to jump into believing this theory but we did see a sign at the botanical garden confirming this. I Googled it once I had access to the internet and apparently it's just the high sulfur content in durian which not only makes it stink but also deactivates the enzyme responsible for breaking down alcohol in your body (aldehyde dehydrogenase, for anyone who cares). I also know that many Asians have a lack of this enzyme to begin with (not being racist; this is a genetic variation) and hence get red/drunk more quickly. I think a combination of the 2 factors may potentially lead to toxic results...

In any case, killer or not, we found some durian at Poring Hotsprings and decided to give it a whirl. Marc hesitated because he wasn't sure if he could forgo beer for one day. I think curiosity won out in the end.

The durian lady chopped our treat into portions and set a chair up for us to eat right then and there. I didn't understand why she did that at the time but in hindsight, it was probably for the pure entertainment of watching our reactions.

I went first.

Alarm bells went off as soon as I touched the flesh (this is after the initial shock of the smell, which you get used to after a while). It was slimy yet thick: imagine custard that had been left outside until a skin formed on top.

I popped a bit in my mouth and waited. I didn't have to wait very long to get a reaction.

Before: going in for the kill

During (before it fully sank in): "hmm..."

After: "oh WTF"

One more Wiki quote comes to mind: "Its taste can only be described as...indescribable". I'm inclined to agree with this but I'm going to try all the same. I found durian to be one of the most complex flavors I've ever experienced. It was at once very distinctly sweet and distinctly savory. There were elements of fishiness, blue cheese and vomit interspersed with notes of rich and creamy vanilla custard. It seemed like something out of the Willy Wonker factory; defying the limits of taste perception.

What added to the experience was this feeling that my sinuses were involved too. I get that sometimes with large quantities of blue cheese and I think it's the sulphur fumes that do this but it's like you're not just tasting the durian, you're inhaling it (and let's not forget the smell itself is offensive to the point of being 'solid'), and feeling it. By feeling it I mean that thick, slimy texture that surprised even my fingers was no better accepted in my mouth. Old, creamy custard is the best description I can provide here and there is also a tendency for it to stick to your oral cavity.

Marc went next and didn't enjoy his flavor trip one bit. We rushed off to a nearby convenience store immediately and washed our mouths out with ice-cream. Unfortunately, the aftertaste lingered for the rest of the night and we would be provoked unsuspectingly by durian-flavored burps. Normalcy didn't resume for a full day.

I was in shock for a while but now, 3 weeks after the fact, I actually catch myself craving it again. I hear that after the initial repulsion, durian can be an acquired taste. Fans just can't get enough and that's how it got its title 'King of Fruit'. I don't think that will be the case with Marc. Aside from finding it absolutely disgusting, I'm sure the interaction with alcohol works against its favor.

To anyone who hasn't tried this and is a foodie (as in, someone who's at least a bit adventurous with food and has a thick stomach), I would say JUST DO IT. It's a remarkable experience! You may not love it but it's something unforgettable all the same.


  1. You have no idea how jealous I am... I have so many fond food memories of when my mother took us for trips back to her homeland. I can't wait till my children are all at a age to be able to appreciate a trip so we can visit. I also love Durian...

  2. Hi Chase The Sun...

    Awww... well, you have to head back!