Monday, 14 January 2008

WHB #116: The Odour that Launched a Thousand Ships

Durian Flesh - "XO" variety

Durian. Hail the King of Fruits.
(Try googling "King of Fruits" if you don't believe me!)

So potent is the odour from durians that they are prohibited in Singapore's full-airconditioned (and super-clean) subway system (called "MRT" - Mass Rapid Transit). This "no durians" rule is made very explicit - have a look at the sign that I saw outside the subway station last week:

How serious are the transport authorities about that? Have a look at the steep fine:


This is my last post from Singapore and my contribution to this week's Weekend Herb Blogging. WHB, created by Kalyn and now in its third year, is hosted by Rinku of Cooking in Westchester this week. I thought it would be appropriate to talk about this very interesting and infamous fruit.

Durians evokes very strong reactions - loved, revered, feared and loathed all at once. World renowned naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace had this to say about the durian: "It is like a buttery custard flavoured with almonds, intermingled with wafts of flavour that call to mind cream cheese, onion sauce, brown sherry and other incongruities... It is neither acid, nor sweet, nor juicy, yet one feels the want of none of these qualities, for it is perfect as it is." Others speak just as strongly about this controversial fruit, but to contrary effect.

Love it or hate it, there is no middle ground with durians. Durian-lovers go through great lengths to locate special seasonal varieties. How durian-crazy can we get? Well, we have durian cake, durian mousse, durian paste, durian crepes, durian puffs, durian porridge, durian ice-cream, durian jam... you get the picture.

A Thorny Fruit:
Have a look at a photo of the fruit here. The word Durio was established by Adnanson in 1763, derived from the Malay word duri which means "thorns." Zibethinus was established by scientist Murray in 1774 . He named it such as the fruit's repugnant smell was reminiscent of Zibetto, which is Italian for "civet cat".

The melon-shaped fruit then takes approximately three months to ripen, before falling and splitting on the ground. Durian fruits are distinguished by their olive green colour and coarse rind, which is studded with sharp, formidable spikes. This thick armour protects the durian fruit from being damaged by the impact of falling from considerable heights (that makes a lot of sense). The segments of the fruit reveal several portions of creamy, yellow flesh, each encasing a hard, light brown seed. It is this rich, custard-like flesh that is so eagerly devoured by durian fanatics.

The durian is indigenous to Southeast Asia and can be found in many of the region's low-lying forests. Due to the limited land area in Singapore, we now only have a small number of durian trees. Therefore, the durians we get in Singapore mostly are sourced from Malaysia and Thailand. I recall seeing durians in supermarkets in the USA (I think I was in California), perhaps when I was in BC, Canada, and it's definitely seasonally available in Australia.

To date, there are more than 100 durian clones available in the region. The more popular ones found in Singapore are the XO, D24, D145, D158 and the Thai Mon Thong. With their thick, sweet flesh, unique aroma and full flavour, they command the highest prices and are indulged by the more affluent Singaporean customers.

Durians are an important and nutritious source of food for many wild animals that inhabit the rainforest. Evidence shows that even tigers and elephants are fond of the fruit, valuing it for its high vitamin and mineral content, which includes vitamins A, B, C, and iron.

Arguably, the fruit tastes best when eaten fresh, but there are other ways to enjoy it as I’ve stated above. More traditional ways of using durian flesh includes: bubur (pudding, recipe below), dodol (sweet sticky rice flour snack), tempoyak (adding prawn paste to salted, preserved durian flesh). Another popular method is to preserve the flesh with brown sugar, then boil or fry it, to suit ones taste (lempok). Durian flesh can be frozen for months.

While researching for this post, I also discovered that durian seeds are also edible and are served boiled, baked or fried. Might try that during my next trip.

Source: National Library Board Singapore

Mom's Bubur Durian
- Durian Pudding -

Mom usually makes this durian pudding with a lower grade durian (we eat the good stuff fresh). Cooking durians somehow reduces the potent odour although you can still smell it a mile a way. My 10-year-old half-English nephew refuses to be in the kitchen when I am eating it. But then again his Marmite toast has the same effect on me ;-)

Durian Flesh
Palm Sugar
Pandan leaf
Fresh coconut milk

The quantity of each ingredient is really up to personal preference. Mom uses lots of durian flesh (to minimize the use of sugar) and just a touch of coconut milk. You can use only palm sugar but the pudding may end up too brown in colour. Therefore, Mom uses a combination of palm sugar and white sugar in order to maintain the natural colour of the durian.

Method: Over low-medium heat, cook the durian flesh with some sugar and pandan leaf. When the pandan fragrance is well incorporated into the mixture, add coconut milk and palm sugar. If the pudding is too thick, add some hot water. This pudding can be frozen.

Selamat Jalan…

This is my last day in Singapore but I will be back again in a year. My foray into the blogging world has definitely added a new element to visit with my family this time. I’ve always been interested in cooking but I’ve always left the cooking of traditional foods to Mom’s. Now that I’ve taken a greater interest in her recipes, I am more excited to practice more traditional recipes from my heritage in Sydney. Two weeks is not enough time to learn from Mom’s wealth of information and experience, but with the two books that she gave me, and a little experimentation depending on the ingredients I can find in Sydney, I am sure that my cooking repertoire will evolve in a refreshing and delicious way in my Sydney kitchen. Of course, no one can ever replace Mom’s cooking.



Em said...

It was a very fascinating 'two weeks' that you gave us, Nora. Thank you very much and I look forward to reading more about your traditional cooking in Sydney.'Wealth' is the perfect word to describe the knowledge of people like your mum. Since you will be working on your thesis in the next months (and not getting the same income), you will be a poor student... but a wealthy cook ;-)
You have inspired me to do the same with my family... I think I should try to spend some time with all my aunties and learn from their years of experience.

Anh said...

Nora, I know how it feels when it comes to durian. It took me a long time to get over the smell and enjoy the beautiful flesh, too. :)

It's nice to know that you have had a nice holiday back home. Now I am eagerly waiting for my turn :D

Antonia said...

What an interesting post. I have never heard of this fruit. I am now most curious!

Bellini Valli said...

Has it been 2 weeks already. I doubt that we have ever seen a durian here in Canada. There was something that looked similar in Choices market but it was small, about the size of a lychee. I agree with Em that we need to go back to our roots and learn some of the recipes from our mothers and grandmothers...dads and grandfathers too.

winedeb said...

Like I said before, learn something new every day! I have never heard of a durian and I do not think I can find one here. I check out all the "exotic" fruits that our store carries all the time, but have never come upon this guy. Your presentation is lovely and I adore that spoon!
I hate to see your visit with your mom come to an end. Wow, you have treated us to so many new and beautiful dishes! Thanks for sharing your mom with us the past weeks.
Have a safe trip back home and look forward to seeing some of those dishes out of those cookbooks you brought back!

Eva said...

I've seen the signs in the MRT but I still can't imagine anything edible that provokes such strong reactions... Maybe I'll have to try it myself?
Looking forward to having you back although I know how much you'll miss your family!

Amanda at Little Foodies said...

Such an informative post! Seen them, even sniffed one, but not tried one.
Glad you had such a great time at home. Hope you had a safe journey home too.
p.s. marmite and toast isn't so bad! ;)

Kevin said...

This is the first that I have heard f durian. It sounds really interesting. I will have to keep an eye out for it to try!

Aimée said...

I am so intrigued. I've never had durian and am dying to know if I would like it. What do you think?

Toni said...

I've only heard about durian. Apparently, it is also banned in some hotels as well. I can buy it here frozen, but I've not seen it fresh.

Good to know you had a great vacation! Visiting family is always soul-satisfying. (For me, anyway!)

tigerfish said...

I love durians, but did not know the seeds are edible :O

Yes. Some Asian supermarkets in California do stock up durians, but they are frozen. Took me a while to find it. BUT.....fresh durians are still DA BEST! :D

Big Boys Oven said...

Lovely durian! love the lovely durian!

kathryn said...

I'm not allowed to have durian at home either. In fact I've only had it once and loved it. Although I do think it tastes slightly like onions, which is strange for a fruit. I'm intrigued by your recipe - looks gorgeous. I also had no idea the seeds could be eaten!

Susan from Food Blogga said...

What a great post this is, Nora! Funny, informative, and witty. I think I'm too chicken to try it. I don't think I could get beyond the odor.

Shaun said...

Nora ~ I have never eaten durian, but I have smelled it before...a mile away. Well, not quite, but from the other side of the market. As soon as they're cut open, their "scent" is difficult to evade. The application of coconut milk to this pudding, however, tempts me to try durian once and for all.

I have loved your posts from your trip back to Singapore. What a wonderful culinary diary.

Susan said...

I've loved your reporting from Singapore, Nora. Haven't come across a durian yet, but next time I'm in an Asian market, I'll have a look. I'm wondering if I'll like it, considering that I do love that *other* controversial produce, cilantro. ; )

Cynthia said...

I so want to taste this fruit and at the same time scared of all the talks about the smell. We don't get it here though (Durian, that is)

Greg said...

I have never experienced durian. Thanks for such an interesting post.

Valentina said...

Hi Norah, how lovely to see your picture on the sideboard. Oh, I miss Singapore.Loved your home town., I did try it but unfortunatelly the peculiar smell stuck to my brain and I just couldn't get it out my brain. I tried to eat it but the brain only registered: bad smell. Shame as I have loads of friends who say that it tastes delicious.

katiez said...

I keep reading about durian - and I can't decide if I'm more interested in smelling it or eating it!

Rosa said...

My five-year-old son Sam amazed me by saying "mmm, I love that smell" when we walked past a huge pile of durian at the Chinese supermarket the other day. I guess everyone's nose works a little differently! I don't share Sam's interpretation of the smell but I do like the taste of durian.

By the way, Bellini Valli, you can definitely find durian at Asian supermarkets in Canada!

Oh for the love of food! said...

Hey Nora, I LOVE Durians! and the seeds too. I enjoyed reading your posts and looking at all the food I grew up with. I was given a beautiful copper Roti Jala maker some years back but never ever used it. Looks like I will be making some Roti Jala soon!
Thanks for all your kind words, Nora - I really appreciate it. Oh, by the way, I will be holding cooking and baking classes soon, not taking classes! HA!HA! You must have been really tired when you were reading my post. So, do you feel all refreshed after your holiday? xo

Kate / Kajal said...

There's only thing that comes to my mind when i see a durian or jackfruit..... “YUK!!!!"

It reeks till the 7th heaven and the Singapore authorities are not wrong to ban it. I would do the same!!!

I guess it’s an acquired taste ... some can come around to it, I’m just not one of them: P

I'm really sorry I burst out like that ...but I’m sure for those who like it, this dish would be wonderful.

Margaret said...

I've heard of the durian fruit before but have never taken the time to find out more about it. What an interesting post you have written.

Cookie baker Lynn said...

Wow, a lot to know about Durian. I will have to keep my eyes open for it in case my supermarket ever gets any.

Coffee & Vanilla said...

I will be looking now on the market for them... I'm very curious how do they taste! I read somewhere that you can buy them on the market close to where I live :)

Nora B. said...

Thanks everyone for your comments. I'm glad that you enjoyed this post. It seems so long ago now that I had Mom's durian pudding. I've had trouble keeping up with them this last two weeks as I was away again for a short vacation. I hope to catch up with all of you on your respective blogs.

Mike of Mike's Table said...

I've only heard about durian but have never encountered one myself. Given what I'd heard, I'm surprised to see it in a dessert form, but it sure looks delicious and I'd gladly try it!

Sophie said...

I've heard of this fruit, my husband wants to try it :).

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Y said...

Heh. I used to love eating fresh durian but I think nowadays, I'd rather have the marmite :-D