The King of Fruit?

It’s spiky and smells like roadkill and sweaty socks—and those are the words of its adherents. The smell can be so overpowering and persistent, that certain hotels and public transportation in Southeast Asia have banned it. Yet many in that area regard it as the “King of Fruits.”

Durian in its natural habitat at CHEFScatalog.comWhat is it?

Meet the durian. A fruit of such unusual flavor and odor that it has prompted many to passionate appreciation—or intense disgust. British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, writing in 1856, said:

“The five cells (the fruit within the husk) are silky-white and are filled with a mass of firm, cream-coloured pulp, containing about three seeds each. This pulp is the edible part, and its consistence and flavour are indescribable. A rich custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but there are occasional wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes. Then there is a rich glutinous smoothness in the pulp which nothing else possesses, but which adds to its delicacy. It is neither acid nor sweet nor juicy; yet it wants neither of these qualities, for it is in itself perfect. It produces no nausea or other bad effect, and the more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop.”

A durian can grow as large as 12 inches long and 6 inches in diameter. It typically weighs two to seven pounds and, in the husk, is green to brown. But the interior flesh, colored pale yellow to red, is what you eat. Although native to Southeast Asia, the durian has been known to the Western world for about 600 years.

Picking a good durian

Unless you’re lucky enough to spend time in Southeast Asia where durians grow, in order to experience it you’ll have to choose from frozen packages of pulp or whole fruits that have been frozen and shipped to your local Asian specialty market. If you’re serious about engaging in the complete durian experience, select a whole fruit. The fruit’s hard shell protects the tender flesh from freezer burn and helps preserve freshness.

It’s important to pick a ripe durian. Unripe durians are bland while overripe ones may be foul and unpleasant (hmm, they do smell like sweaty socks, after all). How do you know if it’s ripe? Choose fruits with spines that are still hard and sharp to the touch. If the fruit is not frozen, tap it and listen for a dull, subtle knock, much like that of a ripe watermelon. Next smell the durian carefully, checking to see if there’s a gentle, fragrant aroma. It shouldn’t smell green and it shouldn’t smell too strongly of sulfur. (Wait, how strong is “too strong” when it comes to sulfur?)

Opening your durian

What the durian fruit's flesh looks like at CHEFScatalog.comOnce you’ve selected the perfect durian, next you need to find your way past the intimidating spines. Fortunately, it’s easier than you may think. Wear gloves or wrap the fruit in a towel for protection, then pull the fruit apart laterally along the visible seams. The shell will separate, exposing several creamy pods of fruit.

If you prefer, you may simply cut the whole fruit with a long knife along its equator and scoop the pods out of the cavities you’ll discover. Remove the large seeds then eat the pulp fresh or use it in recipes.

Durians have been available in the U.S. for several decades, mostly at Asian groceries. Each year, nearly 1,000 metric tons of durians—generally from Thailand—are imported into this country. About 80 percent come frozen. Fresh ones, which cost more, generally sell for $3.50 to $4.00 a pound wholesale, or about $35 retail. Frozen ones are closer to $10.

Eager to try durian? Here are a few simple recipes to get you started.

Durian banana pudding

One of the simplest ways for the home cook to use durian is to pair it with another sweet fruit. Banana and durian work well together and combine to make an easy gourmet dessert.

Simply mash a half a pound of ripe bananas with a roughly equal quantity of durian pulp. Serve garnished with banana slices and a whole strawberry. Even skeptical eaters will love the sweet and mild taste of this dish.

Durian smoothie

Another simple way to experience durian is in a blended smoothie. Add the flesh of one to two pods of durian, two bananas, and a cup of milk and blend until creamy smooth. For a vegan option, replace the milk with soymilk or fresh coconut milk.

Easy durian ice cream

A durian has an unusually high fat content for a fruit, making it a perfect medium for homemade ice cream. Simply homogenize deseeded durian pulp and place into serving bowls and freeze the contents.

Remove the bowls about ten to fifteen minutes prior to serving to allow the durian to soften slightly. You’ll be amazed at the rich flavor and perfect texture of this simple ice cream. Embellish with macadamia nuts or your choice of berries for a real gourmet treat.

Your turn: If you’ve had a durian, describe the taste or the smell. If you haven’t, do you want to try one?

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