I first became aware of durian while watching the Malaysia/Indonesia episode of Michael Palin’s Full Circle travel series. In the city of Yogyakarta, he and his guide purchase the fruit from a street vendor and try it on the spot. Palin’s reaction was polite, but it was clear he was repulsed by the pulpy goodness encased within the thorny flesh (starts at 2:43):
I forgot about it until I saw Anthony Bourdain eating durian ice cream at Polly Ann Ice Cream in San Francisco, in the same episode of A Cook’s Tour in which he eventually would up at The French Laundry. A decade later during the Indonesia episode of No Reservations, he hunts down more durian to consume on his hotel room terrace (starts at 5:45):http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1PNmuExjlEM&t=5m44s
Much to my surprise, durian showed up a few times at the local Star Market, but I was to chickens hit to bring one home, let alone eat it. When the H Mart opened nearby, I noticed that they had a freezer case full of durian. It made sense to keep it frozen; it would curb the stench, and give the fruit a longer shelf life. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to try it.
Then I learned that Scott Edelman, who had doubted the existence of the Bacon Explosion, had brought a durian to Balticon and served it to willing victims. I teased him about bringing durian to Readercon – after all, I had provided a bacon explosion, the least he could do was provide durian. When he tried to beg off by saying he was sure he wouldn’t be allowed to transport durian on an airplane, I advised him that the H Mart was right near the hotel and I’d drive him there himself.
And so it came to pass that last Friday morning, accompanied by Josh Jasper, who had grown up in Singapore and claimed durian expertise far beyond that of Scott and me, we drove to H Mart in search of durian. After a brief panic – the freezer had been moved – we found what we came for and Scott selected three likely candidates. While we dithered about the durian, we noticed that huge durian-like fruits were being unloaded behind us, which is when I realized that fresh jackfruit was also available. We bought one of those as well and returned to the hotel, where Scott was entrusted with the safekeeping of our bounty. The plan was to serve the durian midway through the Friday night reception, figuring that we’d get a larger crowd due to alcohol-fueled bravado.
Later that day, at 10:30 in the evening on the sidewalk near the hotel’s main entrance, this happened:
She Who Must Be Obeyed filmed the proceedings with her phone camera, Scott cut open and served the fruit, and various hangers-on provided most of the geeky commentary. You’ll notice that Scott’s knife broke while cutting open the first specimen, but one of the onlookers provided a dagger (of course) to finish the work. I tried to convince Scott to cut the durian along the equator -as Bourdan did – instead of pole to pole, which would have made it easier to serve.
We had plastic spoons and paper cups to serve small portions to everyone. The “Oh, that’s brilliant” comment is from Readercon 22 Guest of Honor Geoff Ryman. Josh is making the “barbarians can’t appreciate good food remark,” and She Who is clearly upset about having to be near me after I sample the first helping.
Once my critical faculties returned after taking a heady whiff of the custardy glop, I supplemented my first reaction – “That’s kind of awesome” – with a better description: “It tastes like onion soubise custard.” It helped that it was still cold when I ate it, but I was careful to let the pulp warm up in my mouth before swallowing to get the full effect. It was simultaneously sweet and oniony with a very smooth texture, not stringy at all.
I was informed that we had purchased the highly sought after monthong variety of durian, prized for its creamy sweet pulp and mild aroma.
Scott cut open the jackfruit and served it as a chaser to the durian. It was sweet and fibrous like pineapple, but tasted more like cantaloupe. Much to my surprise, I discovered that I am mildly allergic to jackfruit. It caused the same reaction – itchy throat – that I get when I eat raw cherries or whole apples. If the durian and produced the same reaction I would have had a legitimate excuse for never eating it again.
I should mention that I had a backup plan if Scott had chickened out or the durian was unavailable: durian candy that I found at my local Asian grocery.
I opened the bag to split the contents with Scott, and was greeted with a whiff that was stronger than the real fruit we had consumed the night before. The taffy-like candy’s first ingredient was durian juice, the last was “durian flavor.” Think about that – there are places in the world where people willingly consume durian juice, and where there is a need for durian flavor.