The King of the Fruits?

10 04 2007

What is the king of the fruits? According to some misguided individuals with, I’m guessing, some sort of sinus issue, it is the Durian. So, what is the Durian? It is a large, armor-plated fruit native to southeast Asia.

I first heard of this fruit while watching “Bizarre foods of Asia with Andrew Zimmern”. The Uncle Fester looking epicurean traveled through several countries eating things such as bugs, bats, bird’s nests and the still-beating heart of a frog. He did it all with enthusiasm and aplomb. That is, however, until he encountered the Durian. Practically the moment his mouth closed on the Durian, he spit it onto the ground–right in front of the proud farmer. He described its flavor as “onion that was left out in the sun for a week”. I was definitely intrigued. How could a fruit be that offensive weighed against the other foods he graciously consumed?

The next time I saw the Durian was on an episode of “No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain”. He called the Durian “the stegosaurus-shaped stink-fruit of Asia”. Stink fruit? One of the recurring things that you will hear about Durian is its peculiar odor. I’ve heard its smell described as “compost”, “sewage” and “dirty nappies” among other things. Bourdain noted the smell and how, because of it, the Durian is strictly forbidden in many enclosed public spaces (at least in Indonesia where the episode was shot). Bourdain bought a Durian and a machete to open it with and found a wide-open public space to enjoy it. And he did enjoy it, unlike Zimmern.

I was more than intrigued, despite the slew of mostly negative press I’d heard on the fruit, I wanted to try it. I also wanted to test my culinary cojones–after all, if a man who could eat grubs couldn’t eat it, could I?

I did some research on the fruit to see if it could be gotten in America. According to what I was able to read, it could occasionally be found, but no easily. I decided to put “Try Durian” on my list at 43things.com. I kept my eye open but assumed it might take awhile to achieve this goal.

Not too much later I found Durian-flavored bubble tea in Toronto. It was pleasant, but mild. I knew, obviously, this wasn’t exactly having durian, even if it’s flavor were stronger. Plus, how could anything bubble tea be bad? (Actually, red bean bubble tea rather sucked.)

This past weekend I was shopping up in Rochester and decided to check out a new Asian market that I’d read was the biggest and best in Rochester. Near the entrance was a decent produce section, already better than Rochester’s other Asian markets. I began wondering if perhaps they ever got in Durian. I thought I might ask, it never even occurred to be that they might have them in stock. But after a quick scan, and to my complete surprise, there they were, three volleyball-sized, rather threatening looking Durian. I couldn’t freakin’ believe it. I’d found them and it was easier than I thought. Plus, they were only 1.59/lb, which was cheaper than I was anticipating. I picked up the smallest of the the three and brought it up to my nose, ready to experience the miasmic odor I’d heard so much about. It smelled…rather…pleasant. I was oddly disappointed by that. Instead of sewage it smelled more like melon and pineapple. Still, freakin’ durian, man. While most people will talk about its smell or unusual taste, few mention how dangerous this thing feels. I could see people going into battle with these–a durian on a chain, perhaps. It was heavy and the spikes were quite sharp. I’d imagine that if you took a shot to the head with this bad-boy it would be brains on the pavement. I bought the fruit and tied it tightly in a bag before I put it in my trunk, just in case its odor turned to the dark side.

The car did begin to smell like the Durian, but again, it was the unexpectedly pleasant fruity odor.

Once I got the fruit home I took it out of its bag and noticed that it had leaked some juice. The smell was…unpleasant. Finally. If it were any other fruit I would have assumed it was rotten. Now I felt as if I were getting a bit more of the Durian experience. I was going to wait to eat the Durian, but because it was leaking I thought I should try it before it went bad. Because, while I did want the Durian experience, I also didn’t want my apartment to smell like a week’s worth of bad trash.

Considering that the Durian looked as easy to crack as an Enigma Code I decided to break out the big guns, my Joyce Chen Asian chef’s knife. This turns out to have been a proper assumption. I had to go Lizzie Borden on the Durian to break through its spiky exterior. Whack whack whack. It was quite a bit of work to get into, it was almost as if it was warning you, telling you not to eat it. Unfortunately for the Durian and my taste buds, I was determined.

Once I was finally able to get it split in half I was presented with pockets of custard-like fruit. It looked remarkably like vanilla pudding, but there were a couple of red spots in it that looked like it was bleeding. Having gotten this far I wasn’t actually much sure what to do with the fruit. My wife and I looked it up online and found that it was the custard stuff that we were supposed to eat, and that the red spots were seeds that are located in each of the pudding pockets.

I was now at the threshold of the moment of tasting. The moment that Bourdain enjoyed and Zimmern couldn’t handle. It was time to put that goo in my mouth. It still smelled fruity, but not as nice as when I first picked it up in the store. It was starting to smell a bit more like trash. I was a little nervous, but undeterred. I grabbed a spoon, scooped up some goo, and into my eager maw it went.

I admit, I wanted to like it. I wanted to find the best of this fruit. I wanted to throw my arms up into the air and declare, “Huzzah, it is the king of fruits!” So, how did it taste? I read that someone once described it as eating a fine vanilla custard off a latrine. I would say that it was more like eating a vanilla custard (notice I dropped the word “fine”) off a rotten onion. It was remarkably onion-y, as Zimmern described it, but unlike Zimmern, I ate it. In fact, I had another scoop. My wife, who was watching and helping, picked up a spoon and had two scoops herself. I think her expression accurately describes its flavor.

Two scoops each was enough. We tried it. It was fun and it was worth it. While I can’t say I liked it, that either of us liked it, I’m quite glad I did it. In fact, I’d recommend it. It’s a unique food and a unique experience. Would I try it again? Absolutely, actually. Considering it didn’t stink nearly so badly as it should, I’m not sure I got the full-on Durian experience. Plus, I’m stupid.

The remaining Durian was bagged up and I quickly ran it out to the trash, just in case its mythic odor decided to rear its noisome head.

So, Anthony Bourdain, I know you don’t like non-religious vegetarians, but c’mon, gimme love. And Zimmern? Suck-it, wuss.

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I Dream of Vietnam

6 04 2007

Today at work I had a revelation, or a moment of clarity.

We got some Yellow Fin Tuna in our Seafood department which was coming out of Vietnam. While I was working on the sign I decided to look up flights to Ho Chi Minh City, just on a lark. When the results came up ($1140 per person), I imagined the trip. I imagined my wife and I taking the flights, making connections, getting off the plane in Vietnam and wandering the Streets of Ho Chi Minh City. I could see it, it was so clear. And in that moment, I nearly wanted to cry. The moment I had that reaction I also realized why I had it. I had that reaction because in the midst of my imaginings, I could also feel my longings. In that moment I realized how badly I wanted that. Not just Vietnam, but traveling. Getting out, seeing the world, exploring new cultures. I’ve always known how much I liked traveling, experiencing new and unfamiliar places, but that vision of Vietnam was crystal clear and I wanted it, and I could also see how far away from that dream I was.

I’m nearly 32 now, and for most of my life I’ve never really had a clear idea what I wanted to get out of it. Now I do. I used to let myself get distracted by shiny things: TVs, game systems, kitchen gadgets. I tended to sacrifice savings and future needs for passing whimsy and impulse. I need to hold onto that moment of clarity and recall it when I want to buy an Xbox 360 or a new TV so I can watch the same shows in higher definition. I need to recall that vision of Asia so I can remember how badly I want to experience it firsthand, and hopefully it will get me to put the DVD down and walk out of the store empty-handed.

I told my wife about this today and she helped set a concrete goal for us. Next summer, June 2008, will be our 10 year wedding anniversary, and she wants to celebrate in Paris. Yes, my god yes. That’s our solid goal now, that’s our plan. In just over one year, I plan to be kissing my incredible wife on the Eiffel Tower. I plan to hold tight to her hand and look out over Paris and experience the world first-hand and not just dream about it under the fluorescent lights of a cramped computer room.

Thank you, Vietnam, for the unexpected and powerful inspiration.