Strange Fruit: What Is A Durian?

When I walked into one of my favorite Asian markets in San Francisco last week, a potpourri of smells slammed me. This is nothing unusual, for these shops are wild and fantastic gathering centers of tropical fruits, fish, meats and various other products – but in this circus of aromatics, I plainly smelled them: jet-fresh, unfrozen durians.

The durian is the infamously odiferous tree fruit of Southeast Asia, armored with a thick and spiky hide and bearing inside cream-colored globules of flesh commonly likened to custard. Though many people cannot stand the smell of the durian, its millions of admirers have nicknamed it "king of fruits," and at least tasting a durian is a must for any culinary savant. Frozen-thawed durians are cheap – usually a buck to two per pound – and are a good place for rookies to start.

But the distinction between jet-fresh and frozen-thawed durians is a big one. Consider this piece of wisdom that I once heard from a durian guru: Frozen-thawed durian is to jet-fresh durian what durian-flavored tofu is to frozen-thawed durian. That was years ago, and it piqued my imagination – but always the price of the jet-fresh fruits, when available, scared me away, for they can run $7 a pound – as much as 70 bucks for a fruit.

But after years of thawing out durians on my kitchen table, I decided last week in that small market that the time was ripe. So I walked to the heap of durians, beautiful creatures just a day or two out of Thailand, and selected the roundest, fattest durian. It bore a uniform shape and lacked sharp folds, lumps or creases in the hide – all of which indicate a durian densely packed with flesh. But knowing which durian contains quality flesh – for it can be rubbery, tough and inedible – is more difficult. Experienced durian hunters say they can identify a good fruit by the pungency of the aroma. Otherwise, good luck to you – and, in case you should get a dud, keep that receipt.

At home, we placed the durian squarely on the table and launched our attack. A durian is a heavily armored animal, but, if you know the durian, you also know the way in: Each of the five compartments, which contain several globs of flesh each, has a seam running stem to bottom on the outer perimeter of the bulge. Turning the durian upside down, you can often see the crack where each seam begins. Slip a finger – or a knife – into one of these splits and wedge the fruit open. It will give easily, and the fruit can be pulled apart. Inside are the heavenly globules of flesh.

Eat. You are now experiencing what naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace said was worth a voyage to Southeast Asia (even in the era of boat travel) – the creamiest, most decadent fruit that grows. Often rich and heavy, the flesh of our durian was surprisingly light and almost fluffy. The taste was of vanilla, pineapple and almond, and the smell was rich, maddening, intoxicating – and they say that durians fresh off the tree are even better. And so, as surely as the white truffle lures chefs to the foothills of the Italian Alps, I will certainly follow my nose to the Southeast Asian jungle, in search of the perfect tree-ripened durian.