* The durian is different things to different people. While the fruit is prohibited in hotels and public transportation in many Southeast Asian countries, many love it for the complexity of its flavours and textures: A bitter-sweet and liltingly alcoholic pungency, enveloped in rich creaminess
“ O Deus, yo ta mureh !” That’s what members of my family exclaim, jokingly, whenever we sit down together to eat the infamous durian, a much-loved fruit in Singapore.
The phrase is one of the very few things I learnt to say in Kristang, a Creole language spoken by my mother, who belongs to a small community of Singapore Eurasians of Portuguese descent. It literally means “Oh god, I’m dying!” But to my family, it really means the exact opposite. We feel most alive whenever we feast together on durian.
Whether it’s to do with its taste, smell, or appearance, the durian is undoubtedly an imposing fruit, demanding attention and reaction from everyone in the vicinity. It is quite aptly known as the “king of fruit”, commonly paired with mangosteen, the “queen of fruit”.
Like many Singaporeans, my family thinks of the durian as food that generates hot energies that are potentially harmful to the body. Sometimes, we drink water from its emptied shell for the supposedly “cooling” effect. Sometimes, we eat mangosteen, whose cooling properties apparently balance the durian’s heat.
There are hundreds of durian varieties, mainly from Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. My family and I love the Malaysian musang king (or mao shan wang ) best of all, mostly for the complexity of its flavours and textures: A bitter-sweet and liltingly alcoholic pungency, enveloped in rich creaminess. I could never fully understand why a fruit of such divine qualities has not enjoyed universal adoration.
But, of course, the durian is different things to different people. Not everyone in the West hates the durian with a passion, but I have yet to meet anyone who loves it. I have most certainly met enough Asians and even Singaporeans whose hatred for the durian is nothing short of profound. Some people I know think that the durian tastes like a firm custard made with fermented cheese, onions and rotting eggs after being left in a gym bag for a week, in a kitchen where someone forgot to switch off the gas stove. Some appreciate the flavour but cannot stand the smell. No wonder the durian is prohibited in hotels and public transportation in many Southeast Asian countries.
Even amongst durian lovers, the fruit is loved differently.
In Southeast Asia, it is sometimes a key ingredient in savoury dishes. I was told that my grandparents ate it with rice. Singaporeans today, however, are more singular in the appreciation of its sweetness. We enjoy desserts such as durian puffs and cake, even cheesecake. Durian mooncakes are made to celebrate the Chinese mid-autumn festival and are quite popular. And then there is the Malay dessert durian pengat , made by cooking durian pulp in coconut milk and gula melaka (palm sugar) until the mixture turns into a luscious purée.
I appreciate the creativity and craftsmanship involved in making these lovely desserts, but will admit readily that they pale in comparison with the magnificence of durian in its natural, unmodified state. Why tame the wild intensities of our beloved durian? Why check and balance the full-flavoured powers of this kingly fruit? And while we’re on the subject, why are we so determined to cultivate new odourless and thornless varieties of a fruit whose very name contains the Malay word for thorns ( duri )?
Although I might seem rather conservative about the durian experience, I will confess that my family eats the strong-smelling fruit rather unconventionally — using Chinese soup spoons. This practice has been the target of some gentle criticism from friends who fervently believe that durian needs to be savoured with the fingers, and that washing our hands with water in durian husks will adequately remove the smell. But this has not worked, not for our family at least. Growing up, we were told stories about how rats and cockroaches, lured by the lingering scent of durian, would come a-nibbling on fingertips.
In fact, today, we tell many stories about the durian, stories whose veracity is quite simply beside the point. For instance, there is the story of an old neighbour who died after eating durian and drinking brandy, a tragically potent mix.
The experience of eating durian at home has changed significantly. Today, there is online delivery, vacuum packaging, promotional discount codes, and guarantees of quality. In the old days, my father would drive to the durian stalls, put on a firm but friendly demeanour to negotiate with the sellers, bring home a brown paper sack with the fruit, lay old sheets of newspaper on the living room floor to limit the mess, and then, using a large cleaver, cut open the fruit one by one, while the family sat cross-legged on the floor in mouth-watering anticipation.
We still tell the story of how, as a greedy little boy, I had my eye on the last piece of durian, grabbed it for myself, and screamed in terror when I found, wriggling under it, a big fat worm that had clearly eaten more than its fair share.
In fact, we tell many of the same stories when we sit down today as a family to eat durian. We still listen and laugh, although we’ve heard them a million times. And, almost without fail, someone will exclaim, “ O Deus, yo ta mureh !” And so life, just as we know and love it, goes on.
Kenneth Paul Tan is a professor at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy