20 February 2006


When I first came to Singapore I had never heard of Durians before, so when I started seeing signs at shop entrances and at the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) with the text: “No Durians Allowed”, I was puzzled. The signs were not of much help, just the classic symbol of forbiddance, the red circle with a red line across and a pictogram of the offending object inside the circle, looking like a pineapple with spikes. Why innocent fruits were persecuted to the extent that it wasn’t allowed on the premises of retail and in the public transport system was a complete mystery to me.
Then I came across a Durian at a fruit and vegetable market and the riddle was solved. The fruit emits the most repugnant stink imaginable and not only that, the smell is sneaky too. The first faint whiff is kind of sweet and prompts you to inhale deep through your nose to identify the smell. This is when it gets you; I can best describe the smell as something between a banana and the ten worst farts you have ever smelled. This description made my aunt suggest that it was like monkey pooh, which I on reflection don’t think is fair; monkey shit is nowhere near as bad, honestly.
The fruit is green and the size of a rugby ball with some big spikes. The meat, which is the part of the fruit that is eaten, is a whitish/yellow and looks very much like the lard your find around the organs inside animals when they are slaughtered.
In other words, it smells bad and it looks bad, so how about the taste? I couldn’t tell you, the smell and the look repulses me to no end and I see no reason to experiment in the name of open-mind-ness. My wife of course told me I was a chicken for not trying and it took a couple of years before she admitted that she thought it tasted just as bad as it smelled and looked (I did momentarily plan to conjure a confession out of her by surprising her with Durian for dessert, but I didn’t have the heart and we would never have got rid of the smell from our apartment).
The fruit is an acquired taste, as you would have guessed, and is very popular in Singapore and Malaysia (and other Asian countries too, I presume). It is claimed that the best flavour is just after the Durian has fallen off the tree and enthusiastic connoisseurs take this quite literal. Late at night in an Asian jungle you might come across a man sitting silently on a chair with a machete in one hand and torch in the other listening with all his attention for the quiet bump of a Durian hitting the ground. As soon as the sound of a fallen fruit reaches him, he will jump up, knocking over the chair in his haste, turn on the torch and run as fast as he can towards the sound of fruity impact and hack open the Durian to devour the still warm flesh.
Most Asians are very hard working people and does not have time for nocturnal expeditions into the jungle and have to buy them on the vegetable markets, but they will have to provide the transport home themselves.
Once when we were travelling to Kuala Lumpur by train, a family dragged a whole sack of Durians into the carriage. After complaints from several passengers, the conductor told them to put the sack on the platform at the end of the last carriage. It was too late, the smell was there with us all through the eight-hour trip; it’s the kind of smell you cannot get used to and ignore.

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