Soft, succulent, spiky and stinky, Durian fruit is worshipped by some and outlawed by others. Known to its fans as the “King of Fruits”, it’s rich in Vitamin B and C and a sworn enemy of free radicals. Durian’s creamy flesh is packed with minerals, keeps you young, helps control your heart rate and even sends you off to sleep. But not everyone’s convinced…
Like any good outlaw, durian is tough on the outside with a heart of gold. At least, that’s how the fruit’s devotees describe it. Its critics don’t pull any punches when it comes to the rotten smell: “Ungodly”. “Like a three-week-old dead cow in custard.” And from an international food critic: “Its odour is best described as pig sh*t, turpentine and onions garnished with a dirty gym sock.”
It’s fair to say that the humble durian has a bad rap – bad enough to have earned itself Banned Fruit status on Singapore’s subway, Thailand’s trains, Asia’s airlines and every hotel from Medan to Kupang.
How Does a Durian Taste?
“On the third bite,” says one hater, “it was as though I had just eaten a diseased, parasite-infested animal with a bad case of rabies. I prayed I wouldn’t be sick because I really didn’t want to taste it again on the way up.” To a durian lover: “The taste is light melon with a creamy, almost eggy texture – a bit pineappley, with a tome of yogurt and buttermilk sourness.” Getting better. So what does the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace say about the durian’s flavour?
“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.”
The World of Durian
OK, so it’s edible. And it has its lovers. Despite the fruit’s aggressive appearance – up to 30cms long, two or three kilos in weight, football-sized with thorns sharp enough to slice your skin – durian is really just a big softy at heart. Cut one open and you’ll find the soft, creamy-yellow or red flesh surrounding a large seed – the colour of the pulp depending on the species.
Durian’s Extended Asian Family
There are 30 recognised tree species – the scientific name for a durian plant is ‘Durio’ – and nine of these produce edible fruit. While the durian tree isn’t native to Thailand, most of the world’s durian exports come from there – other Southeast Asian countries who grow their own are Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and the southern Philippines. In Indonesia, the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan are the main durian-growing regions – hardly surprising, as the word ‘durian’ stems from the Malay-Indonesian word duri, meaning ‘thorn’.
Love them or loathe them, you’re never too far from a durian tree in Indonesia – Bali and Java also cultivate their own – while you’ll only find the unique red durian in East Java’s Banyuwangi province. Indonesian lovers of this divisive fruit are spoilt with a double durian-growing season: the first from October to February, and the bonus in Sumatra from June to September. Lucky them.
Durian trees are tall – up to 50 metres – and grow buttery-smelling, feathery flowers that tempt bats and honeybees to pollinate them. But it’s not just humans and bats that can smell a durian tree a mile off. The pungent fruit pulls in hungry Sumatran elephants, wild rainforest pigs, orangutans and even carnivorous tigers from up to a kilometre away – ensuring that the trees’ seeds are spread far and wide, and guaranteeing the durian’s questionable place in evolution.
And that, in a nutshell, is why durians smell so bad.
Durian is high in tryptophan, an amino acid converted by the body into serotonin – which in turn promotes a feeling of happiness and relaxation.
What’s the Difference Between Jackfruit and Durian?
Like durian, jackfruit also shares an abundance of minerals and vitamins. And like durian, it’s pretty smelly too. They both have greeny-brown outer shells. But that’s where the similarities end. Your average jackfruit can dwarf a durian: whereas a large durian might reach 3kg, a big jackfruit can tip the scales at 30kg. Jackfruits don’t have thorns or spikes, either – they’re knobbly with bumps.
And while durian flesh is creamy, jackfruit pulp is more rubbery and stringy – more soft bubble-gum than custard slurp. Jackfruit taste? According to one lover, it’s “… indescribable. A sweet, almondine, onion-sherry chocolate mousse with hints of garlic and farts”. Hm. So not that different, then. And just as you’ll see a ‘No Durian’ sign in Denpasar’s airport, you’ll also see a ‘No Jackfruit’ sign next to it. They’re both on the banned-from-flying list.
Nutritional Facts About Durian
But if carnivorous tigers love them, surely they can’t be that bad for your health? Get over the stench, and they’re a wonder food. Iron, potassium, Vitamin C, riboflavin, folic acid, thiamine, calcium, copper, zinc, phosphorous, Vitamins B6 and E, magnesium, sodium, protein, fibre, phytonutrients, water and beneficial dietary fats. That isn’t bad for a big fruit.
With a nutritional list as impressive as this, it’s no surprise that durians are very, very good for your health.
Feeling old? A portion of durian a day can help turn back the clock. Because of the fruit’s high levels of vitamins and their organic chemical make-up, durians have a high level of antioxidants that actively reduce the amount of free radicals in your body. This means less age-related tooth-loosening, less hair loss, less wrinkles – and less arthritis, heart disease, macular degeneration and fewer age spots. Who said the fountain of youth was a myth?
If you find it hard to sleep, durian’s the cure. This super-fruit is high in tryptophan, an amino acid converted by the body into serotonin – which in turn promotes a feeling of happiness and relaxation. The serotonin is then converted into melatonin, which makes the body feel tired. No need to count sheep after a portion of Big D.
The Indonesian people have a saying: “Durian jatuh, sarung naik”. Which roughly translates as: “When a durian falls, up comes the sarong.” The jury’s out on whether durian makes you a tiger in the bedroom – but it has been scientifically proven to reduce the chances of infertility in men and women. Which can’t be a bad thing.
Prevention is better than cure. If you want to cut your prospects of getting cancer, durian is half the battle. Crammed with antioxidants, these are the sworn enemy of free radicals that can destroy the DNA of normal cells – which can then become cancerous. If you already have cancer, the phytonutrients in durian will battle cancerous cells – as well as giving your depleted immune system a turbo-boost.
Anaemia is a thing of the past on a durian diet. High levels of folic acid, iron and copper will bring your red blood cell count swinging back into the positive.
Durian keeps you regular. Its high levels of dietary fibre stimulates peristaltic motion and the secretion of gastric and digestive juices, all of which help to reduce bloating, constipation, heartburn and cramps. And surprisingly for a fruit, eating durian also lowers the frequency of diarrhoea – as its dietary fibre is of the insoluble, not the soluble, type.
Say goodbye to high blood pressure, as durian fruit is an excellent source of potassium. With plenty of potassium in your bloodstream, your blood vessels will relax – not only reducing the stress on your cardiovascular system, but also helping to reduce your chances of a heart attack, a stroke or atherosclerosis. And with plenty of blood pumping through your brain, you’re lowering your chances of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease too. They say a Sumatran elephant never forgets…
The Downside of Durians
A word of warning. Although a Sumatran tiger might not be counting the calories, you might want to get your calculator out if you’re on a diet. An average durian contains anywhere from 885 calories to 1,500 calories – or up to 75 percent of an adult’s daily recommended 2,000 calories. Durian fruit is also very high in carbohydrates. If you’re watching your waistline, a durian dinner is probably not for you.
And don’t drink alcohol with them – you’ll turn into a hot-air balloon.
Drinking beer while eating durian can kill you. Although they’re not a good mix – you may end up with big wind and indigestion – science says that you will most probably wake up the next day. But the combination will test your liver as it battles to break down large amounts of fats and sugar in the durian and the alcohol. Better go teetotal during a durian feast.
Durian is loaded with cholesterol. No, it isn’t. In fact durian fruit has zero cholesterol. You might be thinking of red meat or dairy products which contain saturated fats. Durian is full of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats that actually help lower your cholesterol…
Eating the King of Fruits will make you a King in the Bedroom. Hm. It’s true that durian may cause your body temperature to rise – which might help – but durian is not technically an aphrodisiac. However, eating it does increase stamina and sperm motility – which might explain this happy old housewife’s tale.
Durian must be eaten with mangosteen to reduce its ‘heatiness’. Ancient Chinese wisdom says so, but science isn’t so sure. Both are more likely to have been eaten together out of habit as the two fruits are harvested at around the same time.
How and Where to Buy Durian
So you’ve decided that durians’ enormous health benefits outweigh the stink. How do you buy one?
Indonesia is the home of durians, and you’re never far away from one. If you’re in a big city like Jakarta or Surabaya – or in a tourist centre like Bali – many of the larger supermarkets will stock them. The disadvantage is not being able to chat with the person who is selling it to you. If you’re in Europe, Australia or the States, you might be able to track down some frozen durian – not ideal, but better than nothing. Rule Number One: fly to Indonesia, and take a walk around your local morning market.
What’s the Price of a Durian?
If you’re wondering about durian prices in Indonesia… well, it depends on the season, the size and how far from a durian plantation you are. Count on a medium-sized durian weighing about 1,5kg to 2kg to cost you in the region of Rp.50,000 – about USD3.70.
How to Choose a Ripe Durian
It depends on your taste. If you’re a Thai, you’ll eat them slightly under-ripe. But your average Indonesian likes a durian so ripe that it will have developed an alcoholic bite. For something in between, try this. Walk along to your local market, make sure you’re smelling a durian and not a jackfruit, and put your nose close to the skin. If it has no smell at all, chances are it isn’t ripe. If the odour is already strong, it’s probably over-ripe. A durian at its peak should have a low-level, slightly earthy, slightly sulphurous smell with a hint of freshly-cut grass and scrambled eggs.
If you don’t fancy the sniff-test, there’s another way. Have a chat with your friendly fruit-seller. Durians fall off the tree when they’re ripe – which explains why so many people are injured or killed under durian trees every year. If your durian fell within the last day, chances are that it’s perfect. If it has been sitting around in the fruit stall for several days, it isn’t.
If you only speak Beginner’s Indonesian, there is a third way. Wiggle the stem. If it’s loose, it’s close to ripe. If the stem has already broken off or comes off in your hand, it’s over-ripe. A durian expert will dig a fingernail into the stem – it should be grass-green. If the stem is dark brown and shrivelled, your durian may be days old – and has probably been ripening under a tarpaulin.
Some say the easiest way is to pick up a durian and give it a shake. If the seed rattles around like a maraca, it’s very over-ripe. If there is no rattle, the flesh will be hard – which is how some people like it. If all else fails, find a spot between the sharp thorns, and press down into the skin with your thumb. If it gives a bit, it’s ready. If it’s as hard as a rock, it isn’t.
Or just try the human touch. Smile at your friendly durian seller and say: “Saya cari (’cha-ree’) durian yang sudah (‘soo-dah’) matang. Tolong bisa (‘bee-sah’) pilih (‘pee-lee’) yang bagus untuk saya?” Which means: “I’m looking for a ripe durian. Please could you pick a nice one for me?” And the lovely lady behind the counter will present you with a beauty.
How to Open and Eat a Durian
If you’re a newbie, the simplest thing in Indonesia is to find your local durian seller and ask them to open one up in front of you. Watch and learn. After several expert chops and thumps, they’ll discard the skin and the seed and present you with a plastic bag full of durian flesh. Just make sure you don’t bring it back on the bus or in someone else’s car. It may be wise to bring an airtight container with you.
Once you’ve watched an expert, eaten your first durian and find yourself coming back for more, you’re probably a durian addict. Pick your next durian yourself and bring it home. This could get messy, so place it on plenty of newspaper – possibly outside.
There are two methods: the knife or the stamp. If you’re handy with a sharp knife, chop off the stem, find a natural seam in your durian and carefully cut down and away from the stem. (Some people wear a baseball mitt on their other hand so they don’t spike themselves.) Bury your fingers under the thick husk – being careful of the sharp thorns – and slowly prise apart. You should have two halves now. Scoop out the pulp from one of the sections and you’re good to go.
A safer way is to put on some old, thick-soled shoes – and while you’re holding onto something for balance, stand increasingly hard on the durian until it naturally breaks along its seams. Prise the durian apart with your fingers, and eat.
How do you eat a durian? The best way is to get sticky with your fingers…
Some Favourite Durian Recipes
You’ve got over the smell. You’ve picked and opened your first fresh durian. And you’ve been brave enough to taste it. So what’s next?
You’ll be pleased to know that Indonesians have been perfecting ways to enjoy the King of Fruits for the past couple of thousand years – and one of the most popular durian recipes is called Duri Durian – also known as Makassar Durian Tarts. A toffee-like delicacy from Sulawesi, Duri Durian is popular during the Muslim festivals of Idul Fitri and Idul Adha.