This is not a Fear Factor-esque tale of a foreign woman who, conquering her disgust for the notoriously foul-smelling Asian fruit, puts a piece in her mouth and, fighting back the urge to gag, forces herself to swallow it.
It's just a story about eating durian, and liking it.
It's not always been so. Twelve years ago, in Thailand, I tried durian - vile. I could barely get past the stench to taste the fruit. Five years ago, after we'd moved to Bangkok, I tried again. Revolting still. I let the durian be.
Then, a couple of weeks ago Dave suggested, 'Let's go get some durian.' We were in Penang, and had just finished our umpteenth meal of the day. I was in a high-blood sugar haze, feeling mellow and agreeable. Besides, it's the season. I gave him the thumbs-up.
We headed to a stretch of McAllister street that features a number of durian stalls equipped with tables and chairs for on-site consumption. Dave, drawing on experience gained last year when he and Malaysian colleagues had indulged in a durian binge at the very same stall, asked for a 'buttery, milky' specimen. The vendor nodded and shook two or three fruits before settling on one and cutting it open.
I picked up a piece and put it to my mouth, mildy surprised that the smell didn't put me off in the least. It was buttery, like the ripest, oiliest avocado mashed to the smoothest paste. I tasted a hint of butterscotch, a smidge of avocado, lots of sweetness, and something stronger, unidentifiable but not unpleasant. I kept eating, and liking it, and finished my share with no prodding from Dave.
We chased our durian with a bunch of mangosteen, purchased at the same stall. Durian is considered a 'heaty' fruit and so it should be followed with something cooling to the body. Mangosteen fits the bill. The 'king' of fruits is eaten with the 'queen'.
I've been thinking about that durian, and wondering what accounts for my conversion.
Maybe it's location, location, location. Malaysians - unsurprisingly - claim that Thai durian is inferior to the local stuff. The problem, I've heard, is that in Thailand durian is often picked unripe when, ideally, it shouldn't be harvested till it drops from the tree.
Or perhaps it's down to variety - some are said to taste more 'fermented' than others. It could be that our durian seller gifted us with an extra delicious, minimally stinky one. It might well be that my next durian foray won't be as successful.
It probably has much to do with palate. Mine has broadened significantly over the last decade, as many (but not all) palates do when regularly challenged with new flavors. I've become quite enamored of pungent, 'stinky' foods, bplaa raa, sambal belacan, salted fish, and the like.
I also suspect that the general disdain for durian - among many foreigners (to southeast Asia), that is - might be rooted in our expectations of what fruit (tropical fruit especially) should be. Durian isn't refreshing in the least. It's not crunchy or juicy or appealingly fragrant. I wouldn't want it for breakfast, and certainly not after a full dinner. When it comes to fruits durian is in a class all its own. My taste buds say it has more in common with a pungent cheese than with a pineapple or a mango. And many of 'us' foreigners who can't stand durian do partake of odiferous dairy products that rely on the growth of molds to achieve their distinctive character.
Something to chew on the next time a durian crosses your path. Try this: close your eyes, open your mouth, and think 'cheese'.
Durian stalls along McAllister Road near the cross with Lorong Selamat (Penang) are open morning to night. Our durian and mangosteen cost about 20 or so ringgit.