Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Product Review: Durian

One of the undergraduates in my lab, James, who served his mission in Thailand [1], informed me that his father had bought him a durian and asked if I wanted to try some. The durian is a fruit that grows in southeast Asia. The outer rind is covered with short spines that are sharp enough to draw blood. Inside the fruit is divided into five compartments, each of which contains three fleshy blobs surrounding one seed each. I thought these looked like nothing so much as giant slugs. The durian is known for it's potent and awful smell.[2][3]

Opinions are divided over the flavor of the fruit. Rather than try to explain it, I'll just give you an excerpt from Wikipedia:
Writing in 1856, the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace provides a much-quoted description of the flavour of the durian:
“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. …as producing a food of the most exquisite flavour it is unsurpassed.”
Wallace described himself as being at first reluctant to try it because of the aroma, "but in Borneo I found a ripe fruit on the ground, and, eating it out of doors, I at once became a confirmed Durian eater". He cited one traveler from 1599: "it is of such an excellent taste that it surpasses in flavour all other fruits of the world, according to those who have tasted it". He cites another writer: "To those not used to it, it seems at first to smell like rotten onions, but immediately they have tasted it they prefer it to all other food. The natives give it honourable titles, exalt it, and make verses on it".

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.”
Other comparisons have been made with the civet, sewage, stale vomit, skunk spray and used surgical swabs.[4]
My verdict: I found the durian to be simply horrible. To me the taste was exactly the same as the smell. The fruit was overripe, so the flesh was slimy and mushy (enough to elicit a gag reflex, in a few instances) and slightly fermented (it was actually potent enough that I was short of breath for a few minutes afterward). To me the durian tasted (and smelled) like guava fruit with a strong current of rotten onions and a hint of vomit. To make matters worse, that odor stayed on my breath despite multiple rounds of mouthwash. And I burped it up several times during the rest of the evening. However, since people's reactions to this fruit are so varied, I couldn't possibly tell you whether or not you would like it.


[1] For those who are unsure why Latter-day Saints (Mormons) go on missions, I recommend you visit here and here, where you can learn more about LDS beliefs concerning sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If you have more questions, ask and maybe I'll do a full post on the topic.

[2] James' wife wouldn't even let him take the unopened fruit in their house, so we had to open it and eat it outside. I caught my first whiff of it while I was still on the other side of the street.

[3] In much of southeast Asia, durians are prohibited in hotels and from public transportation.

[4] From (with minor editing )where you can also find the references for the quotes given.


  1. That looks nasty. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be able to bring myself to put it in my mouth, especially if it smelled bad. Do you suppose whether or not one likes this fruit is in any way related to whether or not one can taste litmus paper?

  2. I've actually considered the possibility of a genetic component. (There's also a genetic component for whether or not you can smell asparagus in your urine) The two people I ate it with thought it smelled just as bad as I did, but they both thought it tasted absolutely delicious. So I wonder if they have the appropriate smell receptors but don't have the taste receptors for whatever smell/flavor makes the durian so disagreeable.