Durian: King of Fruits or Smelly Feet?

By Eun Jae Park

Native to tropical Southeast Asia, the durian fruit has been described by some as having an odor and taste ranging from fresh custard to a week-old corpse. Known commonly as the “King of Fruits,” this spiky, egg-shaped fruit has been a vital part of the Southeast Asian diet for centuries. Most commonly consumed raw, durian can also be boiled, fried, fermented, or roasted. Of the 300 native species, only several fruit-bearing varieties of the Durio genus are in common production in Thailand, Malaysia, India, Philippines, Burma, and Vietnam.

The durian fruit is infamous for its odor. (Photo credit: The Houston Museum of Natural Science)

Those who have encountered the durian have described their experience with the fruit as a lifelong love or hate relationship due to its unique smell and flavor. In many Southeast Asian countries, the fruit has been banned from subways and public buildings for its disagreeable odor. Early 20th-century plant explorer Otis W. Barrett described the fruit’s overpowering aroma as having strong notes of “garlic, Limburger cheese, and some spicy sort of resin.”

But Alfred Russel Wallace, a renowned anthropologist from the mid- 19th century, fell in love with the durian and characterized it as “a rich custard highly flavored with almonds… but there are occasional wafts of flavour that call to mind cream cheese, onion-sauce, sherry wine, and other incongruous dishes.”

The durian industry has expanded beyond Southeast Asia, and durian can now be found throughout the world. From small street vendor stalls in Chinatown, New York to supermarkets in Tokyo, Japan, frozen or fresh durian is now available internationally. According the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, Thailand accounts for approximately half of the world’s annual durian production at 781,000 tons. China alone imported over 138,000 tons of durian from Thailand in 2010, and international demand has only grown since.

Durian lovers worldwide can now enjoy the controversial fruit without having to travel to Southeast Asia. Although durian may not be for everyone, it has certainly earned a special place in the hearts of those who appreciate its unparalleled smell and taste.

What do you think of durian? Have you tried it? Let us know in the comments below!

Eun Jae is an intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

To read about other indigenous crops, see: Giant Swamp Taro: Untapped Potential in the Pacific, Soursop: Many Names, Many Flavors, Pomme du Sahel: Hardy, Yet Delicious, Okra: Southern Charm and Resilient on the Farm.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one-minute book trailer, click HERE.

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