There is a food item out there in the world whose reputation precedes it almost as far as the sense of it. It has been written about, legislated against, and spoken of in hushed tones from Far East to Midwest. Even I, having set about to consume local oddities for the benefit of strangers...well, it harrows me with fear and wonder.
It is durian. And it is here.
You may have seen such television luminaries and eaters of the strange as Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain subjecting themselves to this wondrous strange fruit. Nearly a thousand YouTube videos highlight the Herculean task that is acquiring, prepping, and consuming the durian. It is an entrancing thing, covered in thorns, possessed of a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors, and made all the more seductive -- intellectually if not gastronomically -- by its unsavory character and prohibition.
Indeed, many nations in Asia prohibit the public consumption of durian. Singapore's ban on durian in the subways and MRTs carries the weight of a S$500 fine. The reason for this stern forbiddance is the uniquely hideous aroma of the cracked-open so-called "King of the Fruits." Wikipedia lists some of the appellations: "rotten, mushy onions," "pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock," and "stale vomit."
It is worth noting that I've had an honorary spot on my list of potential Fringe Foods items held open for durian. The plain truth is that I never expected to come upon it anywhere in Wisconsin, at least not whole. This is not to say that I was desperate to consume it, mind you; I have learned that no person falls in between the two extremes of opinion on the subject of durian. Some say it reeks of and ranks among the worst smells in nature, while others hail its complex flavor as the steep and thorny way to heaven -- sheer torment of one sense for the exquisite delight of another.
With my desire to acquire durian blunted by my low expectations, I admit that I didn't perform the most precise or exhaustive search for it. But there I was, not two weeks ago, wandering through Asian Midway Foods on the thorny spike of a corner made by Park and West Washington, looking down at a bin full of whole durian in the produce aisle. Turns out they're shipped frozen, and if you feel the desire strike you to woo durian, get thee to Asian Midway on a Wednesday. That's when I found mine, and found it still frost-dappled on the outside and heavy with cold. No excessive concerns with freshness here.
I learned too late that durian can be made slightly more palatable if it is prepped and eaten while still mostly frozen. The aromas are stifled, and the texture is less of an "issue," if you will. Instead, I hung my prickly liege in the hall closet, where it stayed silently, bidding me to meet its challenge. Whereas I was filled with nothing less than glee when I found the durian, and eager anticipation during the drive home, I found myself beginning to dread this assignment. Thus was the native hue of resolution sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought. The fear of the worst possible circumstance was defeating my strong intent.
Most unsettling was the way the natural odor of the durian was changing as it thawed. From Midway to home, I could smell a bright, almost apple-like scent coming off the fruit. It was downright pleasant, and this no doubt drove my mood to warmer climes, where the impending sense of dread would not follow. But as the day progressed, and turned into the next, the odor turned distinctly more unpleasant -- but not so much funky as sinister.
This was, as I soon discovered, due to the slight separations forming in the armored husk of the thing. This is a natural occurrence as the durian ripens, and the slight pressure on the face of the fruit that rested against the wall was hurrying that process along. When I took it down to begin prepping it, the rind compressed in my hands, forcing out a puff of something musty, as when churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out.
It's not necessarily challenging to open a durian, so long as you have something to protect your hand (or if you have tougher hands than those of a librarian/food writer.). But it is awkward.
The interior of the fruit is chambered, and in each chamber is a mass that resembles some kind of alien insect embryo -- see the photo gallery above. The flesh is spongy and cool to the touch, perhaps due to the alcohols being created during fermentation. The sights, the scents, the tactile sensations, are nothing without the taste, and taste it I must. As the king's ghost says in Hamlet I:5 -- the source for handful of the preceding turns of phrase, if you didn't catch them -- "My hour is almost come/ When I to sulphurous and tormenting flames/ Must render up myself."
Here's the rub: it's really not horrible. The smell is pretty awful, but easily defeated if you don't breathe with your nose. The tactile quality is off-putting to say the least, but diminished by use of fork or spoon, a road I chose not to tread. The taste, which is indeed very reminiscent of a sickly-sweet onion, isn't so bad that your brain tries to tell you "This isn't food! Don't eat it!"
But despite all these qualifications, the durian conspires with your body to become more hideous than the sum of its detractive parts. Not since my menudo experience have I even come close to gagging but my brain took serious convincing after the durian entered my mouth that it shouldn't hit the Eject button. The worst part -- the catalyst to the trauma - -is the anticipation, the knowledge of the very reputation that accompanies durian, playing on your mind as you deliberately butcher the carcass of the King of the Fruits.
Almost as bad as the eating was living with its repercussions. Durian has a gastrointestinal staying power that easily rivals garlic or onion. Even after my attempt to napalm it out of my system with copious quantities of buffalo wings, it remained well into the night. "It courses through/ The natural gates and alleys of the body,/ And with sudden vigour doth posset/ And curd, like eager droppings into milk,/ The thin and wholesome blood."
The fact remains, however, that I may never travel to lands where durian falls from the sky (naturally or unnaturally), and this was an opportunity not to be missed. Not that my family agrees: they're all convinced I've gone mad, and madness in great ones (or even food writers) must not unwatch'd go.