The Malodorous Durian: When the Time Is Ripe, Eat or Flee the Neighborhood


The durian is back in season and hawkers are thinking up special names and twisting arms to sell a bumper crop of the sweet but malodorous fruit.

Calling the spiky green globe smelly does it injustice. It stinks.

Among the printable descriptions, one says it evokes "rich brimstone musk, whispering of depravity and month-old eggs. Durian is to fruit what Limburger is to cheese and pornography is to literature."

The stench allows no indifference: You love it or you leave the neighborhood.

No junk food, the much-loved, much-hated durian is high in protein, carbohydrates and vitamins B and C. Experts say it thrives in soil with a high sulfur content, which doubtless contributes to its pungent odor.

The telltale aroma now permeates sections of Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. Durians ripen twice a year, in December-January and June-July.

They vary widely but many are about eight inches long and seven inches wide. Durians weigh about 6 1/2 pounds. The outer rind bristles with tough thorns or "duri" which protect a creamy yellow-orange pulp.

The fruit is traditionally eaten raw after careful appraisal and sharp bargaining by purists, who pride themselves on picking out just the right one.

That was more difficult this year as hard-sell tactics were used by some Singapore vendors. Others tried to take the homely durian upscale with designer labels.

The police warned that strong-arm tactics would not be tolerated after several shoppers complained they were intimidated by aggressive fruit vendors. Durians are sold from outdoor stalls that have a carnival atmosphere at night at the peak of the season. "The best, the best, the very best from Malaysia!" one hawker chanted with the aplomb of a determined auctioneer.

Other merchants try to turn top-grade durians into something special--costlier anyway--with names such as Lion Den and Tiger Hill and XO. XO is on the label of some expensive cognacs.

"XO sounds expensive, like something with class. We want to impress people," said Ben Teo, manager of Seh Sen Fruits. Imported from neighboring Malaysia, XO boasts smoother texture and thicker pulp, Teo said.

While ordinary durians cost from $1.36 to $2.72 each, an XO costs about $9 a pound.

The bigger King XO fetches more than $27 a pound. The King has smaller seeds than the ordinary XO and retains its smell longer, Teo said.

The powerful aroma is the perfume of prosperity for growers and others in the trade. Wholesale prices vary widely according to freshness, weight, shape and where they were grown, a market that seems as delicately balanced as Wall Street.

Related botanically to hibiscus, hollyhock, cotton and kapok, durian is native to Malaysia and has been cultivated for centuries. Unlike the shorter Thai plantation version, trees in Malaysia and elsewhere are too lofty to harvest and the fruit crashes to the ground when it is ripe.

Fermentation that starts the moment it drops can change the flavor perceptibly within hours. The fruit spoils within a week and few people will eat durian more than three days after they fall.

Thailand is the biggest commercial grower, and old Asia hands rate Thai durians as tops in consistency and flavor. The most malodorous seem to be grown in the Philippines.

Malaysian devotees regard it as a passion fruit capable of stirring deep emotions. "When the durians come down the sarongs go up," according to local legend.

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