Singapore Adventure

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Durian Lessons: Part II
by venitha

Late on a weekday afternoon, Choon Hwee and Jim picked me up, and we started out for , home of the freshest to be had in Singapore. Astoundingly, some others of Jim's co-workers were planning to meet us there. "Voluntarily?" I asked, sure that their reasons had to have more to do with the assured amusement in watching us, the durian virgins, than in eating any of it themselves.

I pumped Choon Hwee for the durian lowdown as he drove. Is there a season? Are there different varieties? Does it keep in the fridge? What can you make with it? When was the last time you ate it? The most surprising info: durian and alcohol is a lethal combination.* So, just to get this straight, we are leaving work early to sit around outside, and alcohol will not be involved. Singapore is so NOT Wisconsin. I've come a long way, baby. And now I'm going to have to eat some durian to prove it.

Sure enough, the streets of Geylang were peppered with durian shops. "This is the first time I've seen it before I smelled it," I said. But it turned out that that was just the car's protection, and now that I think about it, it's surprising that a mere window is sufficient. Out on the sidewalk, the aroma permeated the air. And permeated us, we discovered later, to much revulsion.

At his preferred shop, Choon Hwee set about choosing our victims. Derived from the Malay word for thorny, the durian, from the outside, is just that. Rock hard, dark green, and spiky. The sharper the spikes, the fresher the durian, Choon Hwee told us. These must have been fresh, because the seller handled them with thick gloves. Additional ways to detect freshness include shaking the durian (something inside should thunk, one wonders exactly what) and smelling it, taking a big whiff of the end, like you would a cantalope. Jim and I nervously laughed at Choon Hwee as he put the sniff method to work. Such behavior smacked of taking his life in his hands. Confronted with a durian, putting it to my nose and grandly sniffing was the last thing I would choose to do.

The seller cracked the durian open with a cleaver and split it into segments. Each segment housed a seed surrounded by a yellow-orange sac, and it is this part that you pull out with your fingers and eat. If you're brave. We were.

It is not good, but we did both eat two pieces. Its best quality is unarguably its texture: like that of the creamiest custard. While its flavor thankfully doesn't come close to that advertised by its smell, it doesn't disappoint. If it's custard, it's been made with rotten eggs and burnt a little bit.

Eating durian with your hands is messy, and it's not exactly finger-lickin' good. After eating our "fill", we proceeded to the sink at the back of the shop to be instructed by Choon Hwee in the appropriate method for cleansing our hands of the odor: washing them with water run over the inner husk of a durian. It worked surprisingly well; we only regretted we hadn't thought to bring a husk home so we could employ the same method for our entire bodies!

On our way out of the shop, a vivid red mound of fresh , looking more like bloody spiders than fruit, caught my eye, and Choon Hwee promptly bought us a bagful. In spite of their "scary hairy cherry" appearance, rambutan are easy to peel and yummy. The fresh rambutans were much tastier than the canned versions we'd earlier enjoyed, though they were a sorry remedy for combatting the durian odor and durian burps that plagued us the rest of the evening.

Will we try durian again? "Not a chance," says Jim. "Well, maybe the durian puff," he allows, thinking of the famous pastry sold at the Marriott Hotel on . "With enough butter and sugar, anything's edible, right?" We'll let you know.


* My subsequent inquiries on the web regarding durian and alcohol turned up lots of anecdotes and a little science, which was mostly hand-waving about yeast. Regardless, trust me when I say that potential death is not the only reason that a durian margarita would have been passed over in favor of the Singapore Sling. Click here to return.