It is the quintessential love-hate relationship, a push-pull of epic proportions. Architects have tested their limits of innovation designing opera houses in his image, and chefs have surely convened in secret to unlock his potential. He is an icon, praised and cursed at the same time, highly valued but also reviled in public. Some call him perfection, and others have disowned him altogether. He is the durian, the King of Fruits, the most controversial crop of the Asian continent.
There is much hype in the West surrounding the durian, and at first glance he looks quite acceptable—a coconut-sized, green spiky fruit. Initial impressions are immediately revisited as you open the durian and see the fleshy, creamy yellow pods in kidney shape. That is what I’m supposed to eat? You ask yourself. And then the smell. You’re tempted to know more, uncomfortable but wanting it even more. You lift one of the pods up to your mouth, knowing that to fail to try this fruit would shame your entire fan base back home. But I might vomit! You think. Nike aids you on your final step, and you just do it. Rewind…
Walking around any city, you get the occasional whiff of urine, sewage, or trash. You sometimes find a pleasant smell, from a food stall, a restaurant, or a garden. The unpredictability keeps your nostrils awake. Cities are olfactory buffets; strange smells are an unavoidable reality of any metropolis. As unpleasant as that can be, most people can just hold their breath and walk a bit faster until the air becomes fresh or until they stumble upon fairer aromas. In Delhi, there were little pockets of air that smelled of burning plastic, and others of unquantifiable heaps of spices, but that example seems meaningless and grossly unhelpful in contrast to the shocking durian-scented breeze of downtown Singapore. Peacefully strolling by the famous merlion sculpture (yes, like a mermaid, except it has the head of a lion), I was immediately halted by some entirely new odor, by a stench I find hard to describe. “Do you smell that? What is that?” I turned to my friend who burst out laughing, saying “Dude, that’s durian.” To her and my surprise, I found it a pleasant smell at first, sort of oddly sweet, like honey. There was a faint aroma of dirty sock mixed in too, though it wasn’t enough to bother me. “We’re eating it today. I need to find one and try it.” My friend thought me a bit insane, but she quickly signed up for what would be a culinary tale to be told for years to come.
Singapore has been a creative challenge for me. What to write about in a city that is clean, efficient, globalized to the max, and relatively predictable? Its evolution is so recent, as just fifty years ago anything beyond the port was essentially a swamp home of a few muddy Chinese fishermen. I have seen the famed hunched uncles, in their patterned button down shirts, who sit in bland hawker restaurants drinking gallons of Tiger beer, puffing on cigarettes and chattering in Chinese, refusing to accept the modern Singapore that has so meticulously taken over their backwater homeland. To be fair, the alleys of Chinatown, the painted pedestrian roads of Arab Street, and the life of Little India are all incredibly interesting, culturally rich, and picturesque, but none have been able to inspire me as much as the city’s not-so-hidden treasures: the food.
I hesitate to wax poetic yet again about food, but I can’t resist, as my experience of Singapore, and my search for its story, has been by way of sampling as much of the city’s food as possible. Lonely Planet and other guidebooks list “food” as among the top experiences of this island state. In fact, the majority of LP’s “things to do in Singapore” is food. In my first 48 hours in Singapore last week, the ubiquitous CCTV camera’s of this country probably filmed me eating twelve times, as I have yet to refuse my friends’ constant “oh, you HAVE to try this.”
The human stomach is not tested as it should be. We are so willing to push our minds, but when we consider pushing the limits of our stomachs we nearly always prefer to sit content and get our adventure fill from the gag-inducing entertainment of the likes of Andrew Zimmern and Bear Grylls. Not unlike those two—though I don’t know how long this pledge can last—I will eat anything at least once, and I may eat it repeatedly until I am confident in my ability to describe it to those who will inevitably ask the question “what is the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?”
Newton Food Center was my jumping off point, and our meal there was an intentional binge in order for me to sample just a little bit of everything. It started with carrot cake. When I think of carrot cake, I think of carrot cake. Can’t fault me for that. Singaporean carrot cake is a plate of fried radishes and eggs, and there is little more to say about it. It is tasty, but there are no carrots, prompting the natural but still unanswered question why is it called carrot cake? Dish number two was stingray. Singaporean stingray is served on a banana leaf, the edges and the skin of the fish crisped over a fire then slathered in a dark red spicy chili sauce. The thin layer of meat, likely from the outer realms of their giant fins, sits on top of an inedible cartilage that takes a valiant effort to remove, and the flesh itself is unlike anything I’ve tasted—sort of gelatinous and with a strong fishy flavor. The remainder of the table was filled with kway teow, satay, and beer.
The next morning started with chicken rice, then quickly onto dessert(s). The first was chendol. In Singapore, savory items are commonplace on dessert menus. Little ice cream carts outside major malls sell corn and red bean ice cream, as well as yam and durian flavors. Cendol is a layered dessert, beginning with sweetened red beans, topped with green jelly noodles, tapioca, coconut, and finished with shaved ice. It is refreshing, but its consistency is really difficult to accept, as there is no uniformity to the chunks, goo, and ice bits; so many surprises. The second dessert was far more simple, an invention so obvious that I still have trouble wondering why it has yet to catch on internationally. When my friend first said “bread ice cream” I imagined some gritty wheat flavored ice cream, yet another savory food turned into dessert. Much to my surprise, bread ice cream is actually a hard brick of ice cream wrapped in none other than sliced white bread. It’s amazingly portable, and also available in corn flavor, like far too many things here.
Full until well past dinner time, our next meal on the gastronomic tour of Singapore was just fruit. This is when we took the plunge, purchasing twenty USD worth of mangosteen, custard apple, and El Rey—durian. So let’s get back to where we started, back to the King. Like dog poop in a paper bag, you can only pretend to hide durian, and as we took it away from the vendor’s cart, its smell seeped out from under the layers of plastic and styrofoam from whence it came.
The Singapore metro has hung a large sign at the entrance to almost all stops, warning travelers of the $500 fine associated with carrying durian onto a train. Hotels ban it from their lobbies, and most residents refuse to let it into their homes. It seems odd, then, that there is even a market for it. But I suppose that parents who greatly love their children refuse to let them in the living room after they’ve rolled around in dirt, no?
Connoisseurs have argued that the durian flesh releases more than 100 flavors—from almond to pineapple to honey. Many love it. Most hate it. Traveler and chef Anthony Bourdain gave what I think is the most humorous description: “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.” Food-lover as well and long predecessor to Bourdain, British naturalist Alfred Wallace provides a far more appealing description from his 1856 letters, indicating the old age of the world’s love-hate complex towards this fruit: “It is neither acid nor sweet nor juicy; yet it wants none 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’s romanticizing of the durian makes me want to try it again, though upon thinking such thoughts I quickly remember the smell of my fingers after eating one entire fleshy pod. I suppose, then, I side more with the Bourdain camp. Pardon my crudeness, but beyond the first deceitful whiff, durian actually smells like an onion left in something’s colon for a month and then pooped out and served on a bed of honey. The taste is only brought down by the consistency, somewhere in between yogurt and a mango, uniformly mushy but still retaining its mass and a few stringy bits. To even begin to describe the taste makes me cringe, but if I had to label it, I would say it tastes overwhelmingly of fermented onions; I regret to inform Mr. Wallace that his “perfect” fruit left much to be desired.
With a history longer and more controversial than most of the countries in which it grows, the durian is perhaps the most enduring king of the east. A muse for architects and a siren for the intrepid traveler, the durian will indeed lure you, though he may well knock you out with his mere stench. All in all, I still must say long live the king!