Some find it delicious, and others think it tastes not very good. But there is one thing everyone agrees on: the smell of durian is unmistakable and has earned this curious Asian fruit the title of the world’s stinkiest fruit. It may seem exaggerated, but signs forbidding people to bring durian into hotels, public transport and even some food markets are a classic in Singapore and Malaysia.
So, taking advantage of a recent visit there, we wanted to try it to see how much legend and truth there is in its bad reputation. First, a little botanical background. Originally from Southeast Asia -Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore are the most common places to find it- this fruit is covered by a characteristic shell full of spikes that makes it necessary to wear gloves to handle it.
Its name means exactly that in Malay: thorny fruit. Although durian is referred to generically, there are many varieties and species, each with its taste peculiarities, ranging from intense sweetness to hints of bitterness.
The West is seen simply as a curious fruit that smells bad, in Asia is a veritable universe, with new hybrid varieties created by some products and annual competitions to find the best durian in the world.
But does it smell so bad?
The durian is a classic in Southeast Asian markets. Or, rather, from the outskirts of the markets because the stalls that sell them are usually outside so as not to contaminate the other products with their aroma. Describing it is not easy, but for reference, the prestigious Smithsonian Institute defined its smell as “turpentine and onion combined with a gym sock”.
Research into this unforgettably potent scent has listed as many as 50 complex chemical components in the odour given off by durians. Although many of these can be found separately in other, less olfactory-aggressive foods, it is the mixture of all of them that is a slap in the nose.
Although sensitivity to this smell varies from person to person – some people even describe it as pleasant, although they are in the minority – it is true that after the first contact with this fruit, one ends up getting used to this aroma that can be detected from time to time in the streets of almost any town in the area. One of the peculiarities of the durian is that it does not need to be opened to give off its charms.
“The king of fruits”.
Despite the logical reticence caused by its stench, the durian is known as the king of fruits. It will discover an interior with an intense flavour and a creamy texture that, once again, is difficult to describe with comparisons. An almost spreadable and very ripe avocado? Something like that, although the taste has absolutely nothing to do with it.
There are descriptions to suit all tastes, but some describe the taste as a mixture of cheese, almonds, garlic, and caramel – yes, all together – which gives an idea of the complexity of this fruit’s flavour. As well as raw, it can also be used in savoury dishes and, above all, sweet preparations. Durian ice cream in shortbread is almost a symbol of Singapore.
The large seeds can also be used roasted and crushed to create other preparations. Nutritionally, durian is also very interesting and – surprise surprise – some include this food on that almost endless list of so-called “superfoods”. Rich in fibre, vitamins, potassium and magnesium, some speak of it as the most nutritious fruit in the world.
But beyond the curiosity aroused by its smell and the typical image of tourists tasting it in the night markets of Kuala Lumpur, the business around this fruit has grown considerably in recent years. So have the prices. Although the figure varies depending on the variety and quality of the durian, they tend to be around 7 to 10 euros per kilo.
Bearing in mind that the pieces usually exceed 2 kilos, we are talking about a small fortune in countries where a plate of food at one of the thousands of street stalls rarely exceeds 3 or 4 euros. Nevertheless, growing demand in China, where it is considered a luxury product, has led to a tenfold increase in price in Thailand, one of the main exporters, in recent years.
Just this year, records have been broken, and some of the most prized varieties, such as Mao Shan Wang or Golden Phoenix, have fetched more than 30 dollars per kilo. It is not bad for a stinky fruit that some people shy away from, but others are willing to pay whatever it takes. By the way, it is very tasty.