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Durian Fruit: Disgusting Or Delightful?

Durian Fruit Cut

Durian fruit is probably the most polarizing type of produce grown by man, inspiring fanaticism among its lovers, and a deep, deep loathing among its critics.

Traveling around Southeast Asia for the last six months, I've yet to meet an Asian who wasn't at least mildly fond of the hard, thorn-covered fruit, and an unusually large segment of the population is downright devoted to it, waiting expectantly for it to come into season around April or May and consuming it in large quantities until the season ends in July or August, depending on the year and the area.

It's so highly esteemed that Asians call durian, "The King Of Fruit."

Yet ask a westerner to taste it and they might not even get past the smell, which some describe as an overwhelming onion-like aroma, or even a gas leak. The smell is so strong that it's banned from public transportation in much of Asia, and many hotels won't allow you to bring durian fruit inside your room.

Durian Fruit: The Smell

The first time I tried durian - frozen and imported from Asia - I wasn't especially fond of the smell, but I was able to push past it and take a bite. I liked it enough that I came back for seconds not long after, and as time went on I actually grew to like the aroma. It doesn't really smell like onions to me, but rather something earthy, musky, and totally unlike any other food smell I can think of.

After eating fresh-picked durian fruit in southeast Asia, and really going to town with it at the Chanthaburi Durian Festival, I figured out that while the smell grows stronger as the ripening process progresses, even the ripest of durian doesn't seem to have as strong of a smell as a frozen durian that's thawing out thousands of miles from where it was grown, or even just a fresh imported one kept "fresh" with chemicals. The taste also can't compare.

Durian Fruit: The Taste

There is a saying among western durian aficionados: It smells like hell, but tastes like heaven. While, I'd disagree with the first part of that statement, the second part is spot on.

Crack open the armored exterior and you'll find pod-like segments of seed-covered flesh, with hues ranging from off white to deep red. Bite in and you're in for a trip.

Durian fruit is among the most delicious foods I've ever eaten, with a flavor that defies easy description. The English language simply lacks the vocabulary to do it justice, but I'll give it a shot.

Durian Fruit Transit Sign SingaporeThe flavor is sweet, kind of like the best custard you've ever had in your life, but with undertones of flavor that vary among the many cultivars. How ripe the fruit is, and how and where it was grown all play a role in the flavor. 

Sometimes I bite into a durian and taste a hint of bacon (I haven't eaten meat since early 2005, so my recollection is questionable) while other times it's tapioca or cinnamon.

But once you've acquired a taste for durian, it will forever hold a special place in your heart. Most people who like durian get the "durian stare," a kind of mellowed-out, glazed-over look in their eyes that pops up when they take a bite of the "king of fruits." If you like durian, you'll know what I'm talking about.

Durian Fruit: Converting the Skeptics

I have no doubt that most western people will nver give durian a fair shake. The smell alone will drive many away, and often it takes a few tastings to really "understand" it.

Yet all the same, durian has been displaying its remarkable ability to covert the reluctant, even in the face of smell, for hundreds of years.

While touring southeast Asia in the mid 1800s, British Naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace describes how he was first disgusted by the smell of durian and unimpressed by the taste in his book, "On the Bamboo and Durian of Borneo". After a few more tastes, though, he was hooked, and went on to write of it glowingly.

“The five cells are silky-white within, and are filled with a mass of firm, cream-coloured pulp, containing about three seeds each. This pulp is the edible part, and its consistence and flavour are indescribable. 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. It is neither acid nor sweet nor juicy; yet it wants neither of these qualities, for it is in itself perfect. It produces no nausea or other bad effect, and the more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop. In fact, to eat Durians is a new sensation worth a voyage to the East to experience."

- Alfred Russel Wallance,

Durian Fruit: Nutrition And Health Rumors

Like most fruits, durian is packed with nutrients, and very high in vitamins.

However, it's high in calories compared to most other fruit, with a mere 100 grams providing 147 calories. The reason for the high calorie load can be found in durian fruit's relative dryness (the more water in a fruit, the less calories it carries) and high fat content. Carbohydrates and protein both contain 4 calories per gram, but fat has 9 per gram. One durian has 32 grams of fat, with 30 percent of all the calories found in a durian come from that fat. 

For comparison, peaches, which are water-rich and low in fat, have only 39 calories per 100 grams. Five percent of the calories in a peach come from fat.

Durian Fruit Andrew Pile

In Asia, many legends and rumors concern the durian. One of the post persistent is that it acts as an aphrodisiac. "When the durians come down, the sarongs come off," is a popular saying in Malaysia, for instance.

Big durian fruit meals do charge the libido a bit, but I think that you can produce the same effect with other fruits as well. When you radically increase your calorie intake by a lot while also upping for fat a bit, randiness is often the result for otherwise healthy people.

Another thing you commonly hear in Asia is that durian is "heating," and that one should counteract it with a "cooling fruit," like mangosteen, which is in season at the same time.

While it's true that durian makes you hot, similar to many fatty foods that require more of a digestive strain and might be expected to tax the body, mangosteen certainly won't cool you down. Combining the two is only likely to create a bad digestive combination in your stomach.

A Durian Fruit Picnic In The Park

Want to see what a meal of durian looks like? In this video three of my friends and I (all of us are raw foodists) rip into a bunch of it at the Chanthaburi Durian Festival. Check it out below.

Durian Fruit: How To Select A Tasty Fruit

I am by no means a connoisseur, but I've learned how to pick out good durian. In Asia, many durians are eaten before they are at the peak of their ripeness, so they're not as sweet as they could be. The flesh is also harder when the fruit hasn't ripened enough.

However, by only looking at the thorn-covered exterior, it can be hard to judge when a fruit is ripe enough.

Luckily, that armored hide will start to split open when ripe, and the smell will become quite noticeable if you take a whiff.

Just make sure the crack isn't too big, because it could be overripe or infested with bugs.

If you're in Thailand, you can let the vendor know what you're looking for my saying, "Nim, Nim," which means very soft, and "souk, souk," which means very ripe.

Durian Fruit: The Raw Foodist Perspective

Durian Fruit SlicedDurian is tasty, there's no getting around it, but it's also fatty and seems to digest a lot slower than your average fruit.

Many raw foodists experience a "durian hangover," the day after a meal of the fruit, and I never feel my best when it's on the menu.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that they seems mildly addicting. While a number of fatty foods can make me want to eat more than would be wise, durian is the only raw fruit or vegetable I've tried of that leaves me lusting after it for days. Often I'll be sitting around and incongruously I'll catch a phantom whiff of it in the air, stirring my desire.

If nothing else, the high fat content of the fruit has the potential to mess with our blood sugar levels, which is enough of a reason to limit your intake.

When it's in season, go ahead and eat some, but I wouldn't suggest you -like some raw foodists do - seek it out as a regular part of your diet for months of the year.

Durian Fruit: Following Up

Learn how durian fruit fits into a healthy raw food diet.

Find out about other interesting fruits here.

Too much fat in your diet? Learn how to make delicious low fat raw dressings and sauces that taste amazing.

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