Do not fuck with a durian. Every year, someone is killed when one of these heavy, pungent, spiky fruits falls from a tall tree, as if the gods are warning their many haters not to speak too ill of them. However, this doesn’t stop people defaming them. I once heard that the infamous demon king Ravana, from the Hindu epic poem The Ramayana, was described as so ugly that he had a “face like a durian”. Germans simply call it the “The Stinky Fruit”. And if you’ve ever been to Malaysia, you might have noticed that hotels will often place a NO DURIANS sign in the lobby. My parents once got evacuated from a hotel so urgently they thought there had been a bomb threat, only to find out later that the emergency was that a particularly pungent batch of durian had invaded the air-conditioning system.
The best things in life are an acquired taste. First comes surprise at the enjoyment of something strange or maligned, then time itself to add shape and nuance to your appreciation of what you’ve found. An experience that Somerset Maugham once likened to eating raspberry blancmange on a public lavatory, consuming a durian requires the most acquired of acquired tastes. You might have seen them before in Chinatown, or more likely, smelled their creamy, orange flesh from a distance and wrinkled your nose. ‘Duri’ means ‘thorn’ in Malay and if you’ve ever tried to pick one up with your bare hands, you’d know why. Beloved of elephants, squirrels and tigers, many of the upright citizens of Malaysia, from paupers to royals, have developed refined standards for “The King of the Fruits.”
You know the flesh is good if it’s wrinkled “like an old man”.
It is the height of durian season here in Penang and the greed for good ones verges on addiction. I have seen workers at a petrol station grind to a halt because a good consignment has come in. There is nothing that pleases me more than seeing, from a distance, the unmistakable shape of people sitting on their haunches by the roadside around a slowly growing mound of spiky husks. Warning me disdainfully against pesticide-ridden Thai durians, a cab driver named Richard told me that I ought to get a notepad and assign scores out of ten to the varieties of durian I tried. Richard seemed to be the equivalent of a cheese or fine wine taster, so I got him to show me the ropes. He told me that you know the flesh is good if it’s wrinkled, “like an old man”. The varieties of durians he listed are themselves a joy: Black Pearl, Golden Phoenix, Musang King, Pork Fat and my favourite, Sleeping Cat. There is even one round, large variety that is named for a buxom Chinese actress.
Two widely held beliefs about durians are 1) that they are high in cholesterol, and 2) that drinking beer and eating durian can be lethal. Richard maintained very seriously that both of these things were true, but in the course of my research, I have found out that they are myths. In fact, the durian’s high vitamin C, vitamin B complex, iron AND potassium content can allegedly reduce fatigue, relieve mental stress and anxiety, as well as enhance red blood cell formation and skin health. And people wonder why I’ve been glowing lately.
The durian is a clever instigator of lively discussion around cultural legitimacy and race politics!
When I posted a picture of a fine D88 durian on Facebook, the reactions ranged from “YUM!” to “That is GROSS… yeah yeah, I know it means I’m not a proper Asian.” I even got labelled a “reverse racist” for making the claim that white people just don’t “get” durians and never will. So not only is it delicious and a good energiser, the durian is a clever instigator of lively discussion in the arena of ideas around cultural legitimacy and race politics! Side note: my mother, who is white, loves durian, so I don’t quite know what I was banging on about.
Compared to my Kedayan grandmother and my father, who are durian demolishers of the highest order, I am but a neophyte in the game, but I think the best one have I tried is the Udang Merah (‘Red Prawn’), balancing the sweet (‘manis’) and ‘bitter’ (‘pahit’). Compared to the Green Bamboo, the flesh of which is a little too fibrous, the Red Prawn’s flesh is smooth and refined. 10/10.
We’re never going to have a truly deep soul connection.
Here in Penang, people’s eyes light up when they find out a foreigner has a taste for durian. I, too, get excited it when I find a fellow durian lover. But when I find out that a friend doesn’t like the spiky fruit, it opens up an almost insurmountable chasm between us. It’s like finding out a mate doesn’t like The Wire or 2Pac — yeah, we can hang out for a bit, but we’re never going to have a truly deep soul connection.
Richard took me high up into the hills behind Balik Pulau, where the plantations are. The trees are tall and some of them very old. There is a network of crisscrossing strings amongst them, as the workers will attach yarn to nearly ripe fruits so that when they ripen and fall, they don’t hit the ground and split open. The workers will go amongst the trees, testing the tension of the string to know if they’re ready. It looks like hard work. The slopes on which the trees grow are steep. There are huts where people sleep so they can guard against thieving humans and squirrels. From what Richard told me, squirrels will often lead you to the ripe, tasty ones. Extra special ones include durians that have been ingested whole by elephants and those from a tree that has had Johnnie Walker Black Label poured into the roots.
Once they have been collected in big woven baskets, the durians are brushed of dirt and separated in terms of quality. Seeing a durian aficionado put the fruit to their nose and inhale deeply and intensely, to infer the quality of the durian through the thick skin, suddenly assumes the seriousness of someone smelling the shirt of a loved one when they are far away. Then, they are taken off to roadside stalls to terrorise and bring joy in equal measure. As I’ve heard it said, durians are “hell on the outside, heaven on the inside”. So, all hail the sacred, profane durian — killer, delighter, King of the Fruits!
This piece first appeared in The Lifted Brow 27. Get your copy now.
Omar Musa is a Malaysian-Australian author, rapper and poet from Queanbeyan, Australia. Here Come The Dogs was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award.