Sunday, April 24, 2011

Sampling an unacquirable taste

A recent episode of Food Network’s Chopped featured the most challenging baskets of mandatory ingredients I have ever seen: the appetizer course had to include goat brains, the entre course had to feature fish heads, and the dessert basket included durian. Twice in the past, I have sampled durian – once in Thailand and once in Malaysia – in vain attempts to understand its considerable popular appeal in Asia. It is a large, spiky fruit – a single durian can weigh five pounds or more – with a notoriously horrible smell. It’s been called much worse, but the following characterization of the durian’s odor given in Culinaria Southeast Asia: A Journey Through Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia (Cooking) is distressingly accurate:

“The stench of the durian has been described as a mixture of onion, strong cheese, rotten eggs, and rotting meat, all soaked in turpentine!”

In his book, Are You Really Going to Eat That?: Reflections of a Culinary Thrill Seeker, Rob Walsh describes his own attempt at eating durian. He was the guest of Thailand’s former deputy minister of finance, who was now in the business of raising a variety of durian called Golden Button, and Walsh’s hosts were encouraging him to eat up:

“Before me on a plate are several soft, yellow sacs of durian, the sweetest, creamiest fruit I have ever tasted. I have already eaten one of the soft, custardy segments, but the smell of rotten eggs is so overwhelming, I suppress a gag reaction as I take another bite of the second.”

Ultimately, the stench proves too much for Walsh, and he can’t finish the second section of durian.

In my own case, it wasn’t so much the smell I couldn’t get past – horrible as that was – but rather the bizarre flavor. Many accounts describe durian as “sweet and custardy” – just as Walsh does – but others have also noted the presence of additional flavor components that I really dislike in my custard. In Alan Davidson’s entry on durian in The Penguin Companion to Food, he quotes the following account of durian’s flavor, published in 1869 by Alfred Russel Wallace in his book Malay Archipelago :

“A rich butter-like custard highly flavored with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but intermingled with it come wafts of flavor that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, brown-sherry, and other incongruities.”

It was these “other incongruities” that I couldn’t get past: I found the flavor to be dominated by two strong components, each one fine by itself but really unpalatable in combination: the promised rich, creamy custard flavor, plus an extremely strong onion flavor. Wrap the whole experience in an odor so bad that the durian is commonly banned from public transportation and hotel rooms in Asia despite its enormous popularity there, and you have one of the world’s truly acquired tastes.

I know: I’ve tried to acquire even a little bit of the taste twice, but have failed utterly both times.

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