I, like 99 percent of non-native southeast Asians, have developed an obsession with durian. Those that have traveled to Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia or the Philippines are likely to have encountered the overpowering smell of the tender flesh encased in a large, hard outer shell covered in spikes. The durian’s aroma is so pungent and disturbing to the non-initiated that hotels and airlines as a policy prevent guests and passengers from bringing the spiny bombshells into guest rooms or on board planes. Perhaps because of these restrictions, durian aficionados tend to exhibit “junky” characteristics as they feast on the fruit out of sight in dark corners and back alleys.
I first encountered the “king of fruits” several years ago while living in the Indonesian province of Aceh on the northwestern tip of the island of Sumatra. The Acehnese take great pride in the quality of the durian produced in the province, and Indonesians from other parts of the country frequently transport box loads of the fruit back to their hometowns, especially from June to August, the durian’s typical growing season. Acehnese would often describe durian as having a warming, almost intoxicating affect. It seemed to me that the fruit had become a substitute for alcohol and other inebriating substances that are forbidden by sharia law in the province. I happened to live close to a simpang durian, or an intersection with a high concentration of durian vendors. The stench of durian was therefore a constant in my life. Despite my close proximity to large quantities of durian, I resisted consuming the fruit for months.
One evening I was invited to an Acehnese friend’s house. I found him and an Australian friend to be unusually giddy for a rain-soaked Wednesday evening. After dinner, I found out the source of their glee. From some well-concealed space in the small house emerged two reputedly choice durian specimens. My friends handled them lovingly, as a cigar lover might coddle a prized Cohiba. They slowly pried away the stubborn, brittle outer casing and began passing around pieces of yellow, tender flesh.
I was captivated by the spectacle. As my friends began vocalizing their deep approval of the quality of the fruit, I couldn’t help but feeling that I had been tricked into participating in a ritual centered around the consumption of an illicit substance. Undeterred by such a scenario, I began tearing away at the first bits of durian flesh. My initial zeal quickly faded as the nearly uncontrollable urge to retch overtook my body. It wasn’t the smell or the surprisingly pleasant flavor, but the texture that put me off. The creamy, stringy flesh had the consistency of rotting custard. Despite the coaxing of my friends, I sheepishly declined offers of more fruit. I was satisfied that I’d finally sampled the famous durian, but concluded the experience with no great interest in eating more.
It wasn’t until a trip to the southern Philippines this past August that durian was thrust back into my life. I was traveling with a group from Azerbaijan that was studying Philippine community-based development projects. Although it’s debated as to whether or not durian is native to the Philippines, the region around Davao City is renowned for the quality of the multiple varieties of durian that grow there. We had arrived just after the Kadayawan festival, which celebrates the harvest of durian and other fruits cultivated in the area. Such is the warmth of Philippine hospitality that our contingent was greeted with a huge platter of rambutan, mangoes, pineapples, mangosteen, and of course, durian, even in areas in which the Muslim population was observing the Ramadan fast.
The Azeris were generally horrified by the durian. I therefore felt obligated to consume at least some of the fruit on each occasion in order to acknowledge the hospitality and quality of the local bounty. After overcoming an initial period of intense reluctance, I began craving durian at the faintest hint of its distinctive aroma. I was slipping into the clutches of a durian addiction.