Tropical Fruit Facts and Legends: Durian – Asia’s Notorious “King of Fruits”

A newly-opened ripe durian

Legendary Reputation

Tropical Fruits

The sharp durian spikes

Perhaps the most notorious of  Asian tropical fruits; the durian (pronounced /ˈdjʊriən/) attracts both extreme adoration and intense disgust from fruit eaters.  The only ‘fault’ of this controversial fruit,  widely known and revered in Southeast Asia as the “king of fruits”, is probably its blatant violation of the common expectation that ‘great food always smells great’.

A legend in Thailand tells of how the durian was once the most beautiful, fragrant, and delicious of all fruits. An old, wise hermit presented its seed to the king but the king did not properly thank him so, in anger, the hermit cursed the durian tree, and the fruit grew ugly thorns and began to emit a foul stench but its heavenly taste and magical powers remained.  The durian is also associated with other folktales in Southeast Asia.  The legend of Orang Mawas, the Malaysian version of Bigfoot, and Orang Pendek, its Sumatran version, claim that these fantastic creatures regularly  feast on durian fruits deep in the jungles of Asia.

Heavenly Taste

A 3-kilo durian fruit

The taste of durian (Durio zibethinus) is often described in superlatives.  This is true even among the earlier Western explorers who have tried this fruit upon visiting the Far East.  Indeed, one traveller from 1599 writes: “it is of such an excellent taste that it surpasses in flavour all other fruits of the world”. Probably the most-quoted description of the flavour of the durian is the one written by the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace in 1856:  “The five cells are silky-white within, and are filled with a mass of firm, cream-colored 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.”

Hellish Smell

Photo by Jessie T. Ponce

Opening a durian fruit

On the other hand, the odour of durian is often described with revulsion and has led to the fruit’s banishment from certain hotels and public transportation in Southeast Asia.  Wallace was probably being diplomatic when he said that “the smell of the ripe fruit is certainly at first disagreeable” but other westerners more graphically described the smell as: “like eating sweet raspberry blancmange in the lavatory”; “completely rotten, mushy onions”; “as if you’d been French-kissing your dead grandmother” and   “best described as pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock”.   Perhaps the phrase that summarises all these descriptions of the ‘king of the fruits’ is that still being used in the island of Mindanaoin the Philippines that the durian “tastes like heaven but smells like hell”.

Large, Spiny Fruit

New varieties can weigh up to 8 kilograms

The other characteristic that contributes to its notoriety, aside from its heavenly taste and hellish odour, is the combination of its large size and formidable thorn-covered husk. The fruit can grow as large as 12 inches long and 8 inches in diameter and can weigh up to more than 5  kilograms. Its round or oblong shell, usually green to brown in colour, is covered with sharp, sturdy spikes that further makes handling difficult. A faint line that marks the cell divisions converges at the bottom of the fruit.  Small cracks show at the convergence point when the fruit is ripe.  A knife is usually wedged between these cracks to break it open but, to the untrained, this can be a big challenge as the fruit’s spikes and its size prevent it from being held comfortably with bare hands.

Photo by Jessie T. Ponce

A young durian tree by a pond (South Cotabato, Philippines)

Tall Tree

Photo by Jessie T. Ponce

An unpicked durian fruit

Photo by Jessie T. Ponce

A fruiting durian tree

Furthermore, a durian falling on a person’s head can cause serious injuries because it is heavy, armed with sharp thorns, and can fall from a significant height. The native durian tree can grow up to more than 60 feet high and usually takes 8 to 10 years to bear fruit but, in the last 10 to 15 years, modern technology has greatly improved the cultivation process and the quality of fruits.  Present grafted varieties bear bigger and better fruits within five years and, in a young tree, the fruits are usually within arm’s reach.  In old farming methods, durian farmers just wait for the ripe fruit to fall off from the tree and it is widely believed that the fruit falls only at night when there is less chance of it falling on somebody.  Thus, in those days, it was not advisable to loiter under durian trees especially at night as the fruit may fall on you and cause serious injuries but, at present, the danger of doing so also includes the possibility of actually bumping into the spiny fruit in the dark.  The old farming method was probably the context of an Indonesian saying, ketiban durian runtuh, which translates to “getting a fallen durian” or receiving an unexpected luck or fortune. A durian that falls off the tree continues to ripen for two to four days, but after five or six days most would consider it overripe and unpalatable.

An Aphrodisiac?

Tropical Fruits

A fruit vendor offers freshly opened durian ( Tupi, South Cotabato, Philippines)

Tropical Fruits

Processed durian meat: the durian candy

It is also widely believed that the durian has aphrodisiac qualities.  A saying in Indonesiandurian jatuh sarung naik, meaning “the durians fall and the sarongs come up”, refers to this belief.  Southeast Asian folk beliefs, as well as traditional Chinese medicine, consider the durian fruit to have warming properties liable to cause excessive sweating. The traditional method to counteract this is to pour water into the empty shell of the fruit after the pulp has been consumed and drink it. An alternative method is to eat the durian in accompaniment with mangosteen, which is considered to have cooling properties. Pregnant women or people with high blood pressure are traditionally advised not to consume durian. Coffee, brandy or other alcoholic beverages are also considered a big NO after eating durian.  Aside from causing indigestion and bad breath, taking alcohol with durian is believed to stimulate high blood pressure. Several medical investigations on the validity of this belief have been conducted with varying conclusions, though a study by the University of Tsukuba finds the fruit’s high sulphur content caused the body to inhibit the activity of aldehyde dehydrogenase, causing a 70% reduction of the ability to clear toxins from the body.

The edible portion of the fruit, known as the aril and usually referred to as the “flesh” or “pulp”, only accounts for about 15-30% of the mass of the entire fruit.  According to references, the durian fruit also contains a high amount of sugar, vitamin C, potassium, and the serotonergic amino acid tryptophan, and is a good source of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. It is recommended as a good source of raw fats by several raw food advocates, while others classify it as a high-glycemic food, recommending to minimise its consumption.

Tropical Fruits

Durian fruits on display (Davao City, Philippines)

Flavoring for Various Asian Dishes

Southeast Asians use durian fruit to flavour a wide variety of sweet edibles such as traditional Malay candy, ice kacangdodol, rose biscuits, and, with a touch of modern innovation; ice cream, milkshakes, mooncakes, and cappuccino.   Pulut Durian is glutinous rice steamed with coconut milk and served with ripened durian. In Sabah, red durian is fried with onions and chilli and served as a side dish.   Ikan brengkes is fish cooked in a durian-based sauce, traditional in Sumatra.  Tempoyak refers to fermented durian, usually made from lower quality durian that is unsuitable for direct consumption.  Tempoyak can be eaten either cooked or uncooked, is normally eaten with rice, and can also be used for making curry.  Sambal Tempoyak is a Sumatran dish made from the fermented durian fruit, coconut milk, and a collection of spicy ingredients known as sambal.  Unripe durians may be cooked as a vegetable, except in the Philippines, where all uses are sweet rather than savoury. Malaysians make both sugared and salted preserves from durian. When durian is minced with salt, onions and vinegar, it is called boder.

Various Other Uses

Tropical Fruits

Durian flower buds

Other parts of the durian fruit are likewise useful. The durian seeds can be eaten whether they are boiled, roasted or fried in coconut oil, with a texture that is similar to taro or yam, but stickier.  In Java, the seeds are sliced thin and cooked with sugar as a confection. Young leaves and shoots of the durian are occasionally cooked as greens. Sometimes the ash of the burned rind is added to special cakes.  The petals of durian flowers are eaten in the North Sumatra province of Indonesia, while in the Moluccas islands the husk of the durian fruit is used as fuel to smoke fish. The nectar and pollen of the durian flower that honeybees collect is an important honey source, but the characteristics of the honey are unknown.

Photo by Jessie T. Ponce

A large durian sculpture at the Davao City International Airport (Philippines)

Durian Producers and Name-bearers 

The durian is native to Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia. There is still some debate as to whether the durian is native or was introduced to the Philippines, particularly in Davao region in the island of Mindanao.  Interestingly, although the durian is not native to Thailand, it is currently the major exporter of durians, followed only by Malaysia and Indonesia.   In these countries, annual festivals are being held with the durian as the main feature.  The World Durian Festival is held in Chantaburi in Thailand in early May each year; Penang’s Durian and Fruits Festival is held in June; Davao City’s Kadayawan Festival which strongly features the durian is celebrated in August; while the  Durian Festival in Tagum City (also in Davao Region) is held in September.  Other places where durian farms are located include Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, India, Sri Lanka, the West Indies, Florida, Hawaii, Papua New Guinea, the Polynesian Islands, Madagascar, southern China (Hainan Island), northern Australia, and Singapore.  “The Big Durian” is the nickname of Jakarta, Indonesia; Davao City in the Philippines is often referred to as “Durian City; and  the oddly shaped Esplanade building in Singapore is often called “The Durian” by locals.

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