We have been blessed with some dear Pinoy friends in our first five months, and preeminent among them are Roy and Kathie P and their children, who are a little extra sympathetic to us ‘kanos because, though from Davao, they lived in California until recently. They have helped us with many recommendations and directions, with recipes and rebinding of books, with cultural know-how and encouragement. And food. Lots of good food. (Ate Kathie makes a leche flan that is the yummiest new dish I have tasted here.) In an effort to make sure that we have a proper cultural experience, Kathie and Roy have also “taken us in hand”, as the badger from The Wind in the Willows would say. Last night, Kuya Roy decided it was time to introduce me to durian, which is the favorite fruit of most Filipinos. Sora had had her first taste back in 2009, but I was still a durian virgin after almost five months here.
Now, durian is the most popular fruit in the Philippines, but it is an “acquired taste” in the same way the Maginot line was a “challenging ostacle”. This is a fruit that is telling everyone, in as many ways as it can muster, that it does not want to be eaten.
First, there is no picking it. It grows on very tall trees, 80 to 160 feet high, so that the fruit usually cannot be collected until it falls off of its own accord. If Isaac Newton had sat under a durian tree rather than a harmless apple tree, he would never have lived to formulate his law of gravity, for the fruit is the size of an American football, and it falls at such deadly speed that it is not allowed to be grown within the precincts of Davao City, as being a danger to the lives of passers-by.
Next, if your bravery and precaution have put you in possession of the fruit, you are still no closer to eating it. It is covered in a rock-hard shell studded with razor-sharp spikes. To cut it is a job for professionals, and indeed, Kuya Roy brought his durian fruit to our house pre-cut. While washing a couple of dishes, I bumped my hand against the durian as it sat in a plastic bag next to our kitchen sink. It almost drew blood, even through the plastic.
But suppose you manage to cut it and prise it open without injuring your hand. Now surely heaven awaits those who have persevered? No. Having thwarted the strategies of self-preservation that durian has borrowed from the gibbon and the pufferfish, you are faced with its last line of defense: that of the skunk.
Wikipedia gives a catena of quotations about the smell of the fruit from English-speaking writers:
While Wallace cautions that “the smell of the ripe fruit is certainly at first disagreeable”, later descriptions by westerners are more graphic. British novelist Anthony Burgess writes that eating durian is “like eating sweet raspberry blancmange in the lavatory”. Chef Andrew Zimmern compares the taste to “completely rotten, mushy onions.” Anthony Bourdain, a lover of durian, relates his encounter with the fruit thus: “Its taste can only be described as…indescribable, something you will either love or despise. …Your breath will smell as if you’d been French-kissing your dead grandmother”. Travel and food writer Richard Sterling says: “… its odor is best described as pig-[excrement], turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock. It can be smelled from yards away. Despite its great local popularity, the raw fruit is forbidden from some establishments such as hotels, subways and airports, including public transportation in Southeast Asia.
I did at length sample the fruit. Fortunately, I had near at hand a fresh glass of calamansi juice for a chaser. After that, I helped myself to another serving of Ate Kathie’s leche flan. I will need a little more time to acquire the taste, I think.
The durian is now in our refrigerator in a sealed plastic container. And the container is inside a sealed plastic bag.