Durian's reputation preceded my arrival to Singapore. I'd read about the gasoline-like aroma. I'd seen the "no durians allowed" warnings that are posted all over the subway entrances. I'd watched Anthony Bourdain talk about how rank it is. I was definitely scared. I also made it one of the first things I would try when I finally landed in this hot, humid country.
I did not have to look far. Durian is everywhere—in ice cream, pastries, custards, shaved ice desserts, and hard candies to suck on, just in case you really want the experience to linger. Fresh durian also looks scary, like some type of soft yellow fleshed alien life form inside a crazy spiked shell.
My first taste was of a durian flavored custard, and though my husband politely declined from sharing, he offered to take pics from the sideline. Just like I'd been warned, durian does smell pretty noxious, and the sweet onion-like flavor was somewhat off putting for a dessert. Once eaten, durian has a hard time letting go, and you end up burping up durian gas for hours after, much to the dismay of anyone you're with. (Sipping salt water is supposed to help,) But unlike most westerners when they first sample this unfamiliar flavor, I decided not to spit it out, just report back with the expected, "Yeah, it's disgusting just like you thought." I didn't want this fruit to get the better of me. I'd give it a few goes before I made up my mind.
Sampling durian over and over again is easy here because you realize right away how much of a passion Singaporeans have for this love-it-or-hate-it fruit. Heck, we even have a building shaped like a durian. For those who love it, it's serious business. Durian farm tours are popular (our durians come from Malaysia), proudly advertising "all you can eat durian feasts."
As a freelance food writer, I was lucky enough to be invited to an all-out fresh durian fest at a local durian tasting hosted by InSing.com. We sampled 11 durian cultivars (who knew there were so many?) with funky names like Red Prawn, Butter Durian, Mountain Cat, and D24. For details on that day, check out the Ultimate Durian Taste Test.
After having tried fresh durian a few times, I found the aroma to be less obnoxious and the flavor much less offensive. I realized how different durian can be depending on the type, especially after the durian tasting. The flesh can be sweet and creamy, or bitter, fibrous, and juicy. I've also learned how expensive it can be. They seem to average about $10/kilogram but highly prized varieties can go for $30/kilogram, meaning about $90 a durian!
After getting used to the fresh fruit (and um, kind of liking it), I'm beginning to venture again into pastries. Durian pancakes are popular. Made fresh to order straight off the hot plate, warm, crunchy crepes are filled with a cool durian filling.
Especially during durian season in the summer months, the fragrance (or odor, depending who you ask) wafting from the many fresh durian stalls hangs over Singapore. When visitors come to my place, I do not disappoint. I take them right to my local fresh durian hawker, 101 Durian-Famous King of Durian Stand (ground floor, Chinatown Food Complex). During peak season, the varieties are overwhelming, but the staff will help you pick. My husband's boss is partial to Mountain Cat durians, so I gave it a try—at $20 a pop.
The staff knocks each durian with the back of her knife until she hears a hollow sound (the sign of a good, ripe durian), and then cuts it open right in front of you to inspect (don't take your chance on an unopened one), and poke the flesh (i like it soft). If you're on the run, you can even pick from the packaged, shelled durians.
You can even eat it there at the tables provided, but I had mine wrapped. To protect you from the razor sharp spines (and from being attacked by durian haters as you carry your smelly durian back home), it's thickly wrapped in newspaper and bagged. But all that wrapping can't contain the power of durian; just a few seconds in my elevator was enough to stink it up, and I got a scolding later on for bringing durian into the apartment. Be forewarned, durian may cause marital problems.
I have to say that the Mountain Cat was actually quite tasty. It's sort of like an uber-sweet mango, without any of the tartness. Creamy, sweet flesh that was easily pried from the seeds, with just a slight bitterness, and a mild gasoline-like burn at the end.
Based on my experience, I will sum it up like this: durian needs time to be appreciated. Don't expect to love it at first bite, because you won't. And don't go inhaling a big whiff of it before you take a bite. If you give it a chance (and do try the fresh fruit when getting used to it), you might be surprised. It may just begin to grow on you.
About the author: Yvonne Ruperti is a food writer, recipe developer, former bakery owner, and author of the new cookbook One Bowl Baking: Simple From Scratch Recipes for Delicious Desserts (Running Press, October 2013), also available at Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, Powell's, and The Book Depository. Watch her culinary stylings on the America's Test Kitchen television show. Follow her Chocoholic, Chicken Dinners, Singapore Stories and Let Them Eat Cake columns on Serious Eats. Follow Yvonne on Twitter as she explores Singapore.