An audience with the king (of fruits)

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Durian, that spiky wonder, is seen (but not smelled) outside of a small food mart in Bangkok, Thailand on Jan. 15, 2013. (Photos by Jammie Karlman)

I am on a forever quest to try the fruit durian. Tales of the duality of the durian  have fascinated me since a young age; how its famously nasty odor is paired with an incredibly delectable flavor. Even as a child, I couldn’t understand how the smell of something wouldn’t affect its taste. I would ask my parents what it smelled and tasted like, and would receive  answers  like “bad” and “good.” When my pestering reached fever pitch, they would tell me I would have to try it for myself.

A good answer to neatly and effectively shut me up as fresh durian is not allowed in the U.S. I would see it packaged in the frozen food aisles of Asian supermarkets, but was told that it does not taste  as good as fresh durian. Over the years, I would ask others about it, but they also gave unsatisfying and nebulous answers about its smell and taste.

So I was more than a little excited to discover that durian was in season when we arrived in Bangkok, Thailand in early January. However, I was thoroughly warned not to eat fresh fruit and vegetables here, especially not when we had just arrived. But though I could not eat them, I could still look. The durians here do not look anything like I had imagined. About the size of a volleyball (but some were much larger), the brown/green fruit is covered in thorns. They remind me of cockleburrs — on steroids. I understand now why they are called the “King of fruits.”

Besides food, they could probably be used as weapons of mass bruising and scratches. I hefted a volleyball-sized one and was surprised at how much it weighed — between 8-10 lbs. Our laws of gravitation would likely be vastly different if a durian had dropped on Isaac Newton’s head.

The discarded husks of durians sit outside a food stall in Bangkok, Thailand on Jan. 16, 2013.

The discarded husks of durians sit outside a food stall in Bangkok, Thailand on Jan. 16, 2013.

But was its smell as imposing as its appearance? A friend had recently described its aroma as “rotten onions.” I also had been told that their odor can be detected from far away, but here, in a food stall amongst so many, its smell mixed with others.  Not knowing what to expect, I couldn’t distinguish its odor.  I stepped a little closer to the cart. Still no miasma. Finally, I stood right next to the cart. Leaning over, I deeply inhaled.

And it wasn’t bad.

Of course, you are getting the opinion of a person who grew up in a Filipino household where patis (fish sauce), garlic, onion and all things fried reigned in the kitchen. But to me it smelled fragrant, a little overly sweet, like too-ripe bananas with a sharper edge. I thought “flowers” not “gym socks” when I smelled it. I was told later, however, that the Thais have been able to develop varieties of durian that are not so odoriferous.

The thorns are just part of a thick husk that the cart owner hacked away at expertly with a machete (FYI: longitudinally, in smallish sections until the fruit can be reached). The “meat” comes out in liver-shaped sections. The fruit of this type of durian was a light yellow, but in other varieties it can be deep yellow or even red. It had large seeds, about the size of ping-pong balls.

I was not brave enough to eat it, so instead, my husband and I got sticky rice with mangoes in coconut milk. Well, we thought we got sticky rice and mangoes. When we opened up the plastic bag with the coconut milk to dump over the sticky rice, a large hunk of fresh durian came swimming out. We looked at it in stupefied wonder. It was almost like a sign that we should eat it.

Durian fruit sits packaged and waiting for customers at a food stall in Bangkok, Thailand on Jan. 16, 2013.

Durian fruit sits packaged and waiting for customers at a food stall in Bangkok, Thailand on Jan. 16, 2013.

So we did.

It tasted sweet, with an undertone of acidity. It tastes surprisingly like a cherimoya — that green, softball-sized fruit with soft white flesh and large seeds. Its flesh is soft like a cherimoya, too, but more creamy and without the grit that is sometimes found at the end of  a cherimoya bite. While durian tastes creamy, its consistency is far from pudding-like. To the teeth it feels like biting into a canned lychee or canned peach. A most amazing fruit whose only constant seems to be contrast.

I thoroughly enjoyed eating it, but my husband’s experience was not so happy. He spent the better part of two days in the bathroom, suffering from food poisoning. I guess eating durian will be an experience best left up to the king and I.

(Sticky rice with mangoes, however, really is a dish that should be tried by everyone at least 500 times.  After eating it, that number won’t seem so far-fetched. Trust.)

Sticky Rice with Mangoes

INGREDIENTS

1  1/2 cups uncooked short-grain white rice

2 cups water

1 1/2 cups coconut milk

1/2  cup white sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup coconut milk

1 tablespoon white sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 mangoes, peeled and sliced

DIRECTIONS

1.) Combine the rice and water in a saucepan; bring to a boil; cover and reduce heat to low. Simmer until water is absorbed, 15 to 20 minutes.

2.) While the rice cooks, mix together 1 1/2 cups coconut milk, 1/2  cup sugar, and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a saucepan over medium heat; bring to a boil; remove from heat and set aside. Stir the cooked rice into the coconut milk mixture; cover. Allow to cool for 1 hour.

3.) Make a sauce by mixing together 1/2 cup coconut milk, 1 tablespoon sugar, 1/4 teaspoon salt. Boil until thickened.

4.)  Place the sticky rice on a serving dish. Arrange the mangoes on top of the rice. Pour the sauce over the mangoes and rice.

-From Allrecipes.com with some modifications.

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