Home World Travel Wicked Smells and Heavenly Bites: The Durian

Wicked Smells and Heavenly Bites: The Durian

durian from Davao City, Philippines
PHOTO BY LEO & NINA CASTILLO

Someone described it as “hell on the outside and heaven on the inside.” Another compared eating one to “sitting on the toilet while eating your favorite ice cream.” Those people appreciated the fruit’s taste, if not its scent. Others weren’t as generous. Henri Mouhot, the French naturalist and explorer who popularized the ruins of Angkor to the West, didn’t mince words: “On first tasting it I thought it like the flesh of some animal in a state of putrefaction.” Even Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern who has eaten and enjoyed anything from cow placenta to worms almost threw up as he spat out the first durian he tasted.

interior of a durian fruit
The interior of the notorious durian. PHOTO BY LEO & NINA CASTILLO.

No fruit on the planet has managed to elicit such extreme reactions from opposite ends of the palate’s spectrum. A massive turn-off for eaters struggling to overcome its taste is the fruit’s repugnant smell which has gained for the durian the reputation as the world’s smelliest fruit. Anthony Bourdain once described it by saying “Your breath will smell as if you’d been French kissing your dead grandmother.”

interior durian shot
Another shot of a durian interior; people who have grown to like the fruit enjoy its creamy, custardy taste. PHOTO BY JIM TEO FROM UNSPLASH.

The durian’s smell has a remarkably long reach. When we were still single and dating, Nina once brought some durian for Leo from Davao City, some of which Leo kept in the ground floor apartment unit where he was staying. Later, a guy from the third floor of the apartment complex advised Leo’s housemates that their garbage was weeks overdue for taking out. You can just imagine what would happen when durian is placed inside a refrigerator. Sure enough some officemates of Leo made that blooper and for almost 6 months any liquid or food placed inside that ref smelled and tasted like durian. (That problem would have been easily solved by placing baking soda inside the ref as we learned later.) Even animals are repelled by the durian’s aroma. No small wonder this fruit is banned from hotels, subways and buses all over Southeast Asia.

sharp spikes form the durian's outer covering
Those bristling spikes can cause injury when the fruit is not handled carefully. PHOTO BY LEO & NINA CASTILLO.

And it’s not just the smell. The durian also guards its flesh by an array of vicious spikes that gives it the appearance of a deadly medieval weapon. It’s the plant kingdom’s version of a porcupine, only more lethal. Leo once got nicked badly when he improperly handled one. We used to half-jokingly muse about the durian’s serious potential as an actual weapon. But it seems that folks in Phuket, Thailand have taken that to heart and use it not as a weapon against their enemies but as an instrument for self-flagellation at their Vegetarian Festival.

opening a durian
Locals in durian-producing regions can open the fruit bare-handed, although a knife could become handy. Some people, however, may need to get protection for their hands. PHOTOS BY LEO & NINA CASTILLO

The durian is even more lethal taste-wise for many rookie eaters. However, we believe that what really makes it difficult for first timers is the durian’s pungent smell – a psychological roadblock that influences its taste more than anything. But it’s like eating blue cheese: the rotten smell might turn you off but once you get past that you can begin to enjoy its rich, creamy texture and custardy taste. So if you’re trying durian for the first time better find something to block your nostrils while gorging on the fruit.

Many say that durian is an acquired taste. And even the smell – as horribly bad as it is – can actually grow on you. Henri Mouhot who initially denounced the durian would later say, “…but after four or five trials I found the aroma exquisite.”

“To anyone who doesn’t like durian it smells like a bunch of dead cats.
But as you get to appreciate durian, the smell is not offensive at all.
It’s attractive. It makes you drool like a mastiff.”
— Bob Halliday, Bangkok-based food writer

According to Lindsay of Year of the Durian the durian’s unique taste is a combination of savory, sweet, and creamy all at once. But perhaps Jimmy Kimmel made the best description of the fruit’s taste upon being served durian by Jessica Chastain: “… it’s on the line between horrible and delicious.” Ultimately people’s opinion of the fruit end up either way. You either hate it to death or love it with fanatical passion. There is no middle ground. After eating durian for the 3rd or 4th time we ended up on the side of delicious. It has actually become Leo’s favorite fruit.

Philippine Eagle, grilled yellowfin tuna jaw and durian from Davao City, Philippines
Davao City in southern Philippines is famous for these three things: the rare Philippine Eagle, the panga ng tuna or grilled yellowfin tuna jaw and the durian. PHOTOS BY LEO & NINA CASTILLO.

We encountered durian all over Southeast Asia where it is known as the “King of Fruits” – in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Here in the Philippines it used to be popular only in Mindanao, and especially in Davao City. In recent times more and more durian are being farmed and enjoyed in other parts of the country but Davao’s durian is still the best in our opinion. This is due in no small way to the 2.3 million Rousette fruit bats at the Monfort Bat Sanctuary in nearby Samal, the Guinness World Records holder for the largest single bat colony. The bats of Samal and Talicud Islands are the ones mainly responsible for pollinating the durian farms in Davao.

a beach in Talicud Island, Samal, Philippines
A beach scene in pretty Talicud Island, part of the island city of Samal, Davao del Sur province, Philippines. PHOTO BY LEO & NINA CASTILLO.

Davao City is also the place where we lost our “durian virginity” (read CNN Travel’s Leela Punyaratabandhu on how to do this “quickly and painlessly”). While both our first attempts at consuming durian didn’t exactly endear the fruit to us, it wasn’t as bad as in the massively entertaining anecdotes about people trying to conquer their fear of the dreaded fruit. Credit goes to friends from Davao who knew how to initiate us into enjoying the King of Fruits.

tropical fruits from Davao City, Philippines
If you ever visit Davao and feel that the durian is too much of a challenge, no need to freak out. There are several other exotic but less disturbing tropical fruits that you can try. Top Left: Mangosteen; Top Right: Rambutan; Bottom Left: Peeled Pomelo; Bottom Right: Marang. BOTTOM LEFT PHOTO BY NERINGA SKORUPSKIENE FROM UNSPLASH. ALL OTHER PHOTOS BY LEO & NINA CASTILLO.

Mindful about first-timers chickening out at the thought of trying this smelly, thorny fruit, Davao has concocted many ways of breaking them in. The city has introduced various durian-based sweets and desserts such as durian candies, pie, cakes, ice cream, tarts, pastel, coffee and shakes. Most of these products, while durian-flavored, do not have the strong taste of the fruit and, more importantly, none of its strong smell. This helps one to gradually adjust to the durian’s flavor. Other countries across Asia have a similarly diverse plethora of durian-based products.

durian products from Southeast Asia
Have a less traumatic durian-eating experience by trying durian-based sweets and pastries first. Top Left: Durian puffs. PHOTO BY PROJECTMANHATTAN, via WIKIMEDIA COMMONS / CC BY-SA 3.0; Top Right: Durian roll served at the Coffee Lounge, Goodwood Park Hotel, Singapore. PHOTO BY JACKLEE, via WIKIMEDIA COMMONS / CC BY-SA 4.0; Bottom: A pastry filled with cheese and durian cream – a specialty of Bandung, West Java, Indonesia. PHOTO BY GUNAWAN KARTAPRANATA, via WIKIMEDIA COMMONS / CC BY-SA 3.0.

For people who are serious about doing a durian tour in Asia, digital nomads Lindsay and Graham of Year of the Durian are arranging group tours. We must warn you, however, that it’s for durian lovers ONLY – for the hard core, the fanatical, the truly obsessed, the durian LOVERS who want to dive in to durian and durian culture with both hands. According to Lindsay and Graham double fisting durian on these tours is totally good etiquette. For now all tours are currently suspended until the Covid world situation settles down but we believe these tours will eventually push through.

A final word to all you curious, would-be durian eaters: although durian may cause your body temperature to rise, it is NOT an aphrodisiac.

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