Durian, a large, spiky fruit of Southeast Asia known for its pungent odor

I first encountered the durian as I was studying for a 2006 Thailand vacation. I was eager to dig into the local food and the tropical fruits especially excited me. It turned out to be not much of a culinary vacation and I ate a lot less fruit than I would have hoped. I certainly never got the nerve to try the durian. Since then my fear and ambivalence has only grown, especially after this SLOG story

(Spangenthal-Lee, Jonah, “Adventures in Food with Ari and Jonah,” The Stranger, 20 April 2007) and an episode of No Reservations where Anthony Bourdain described the durian as being more like a pungent French runny cheese than fruit.

But then, on Wednesday night, I was at a dinner party where the Vietnamese host announced that there would be two disserts after the dinner: one a usual dessert, the other a challenging dessert. I had already seen the cake on the galley counter so that was known. The challenge dissert was to be a surprise. After the cake was brought to the table, our host disappeared into the kitchen and returned with the surprise dessert: durian.

I have to say that its smell and appearance are deeply intimidating. I roiled with conflicted desire: the adventuresome side desperate to taste it, my distance-operative senses sounding the alarm that this was not food and not to be put in my mouth.

So of course I tried it. Once you get it past your nose it is a wonderfully complex and delicious fruit. It has an arduous flavor that comes in a number of phases. If you divide it into four rough phases, the third quarter is the fruity high point with a wonderful, light, fresh taste characteristic of tropical fruit at the top, reminiscent of the aftertaste of strawberries as it wears on. It has a long sour tail like cheese or butter, but with an ever so slight element of rancid gym sock.

Our host explained that if you buy the durian in the husk, you never know what you’re going to get until you open it up. He recommended the packaged durian, because someone else opens it and then it only gets packed if it’s good. Good being sulfuric in this case.