It Stinks ... It’s Delicious, but It Really Stinks
It’s been called the worst-smelling food in the world, so vile that some airlines refuse to let passengers stow the pungent fruit in the overhead cargo bins.
But to aficionados of the durian -- a football-sized fruit that grows in Thailand, Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries -- the sharp, biting odor is a small price to pay for the sweet, custard-like meat inside the spiky husks.
In Asian shopping districts such as Orange County’s Little Saigon, customers hover around the durian bins, poking, shaking and inspecting the imported fruit.
On a recent Saturday morning at A Chau Supermarket in Fountain Valley, on the outskirts of Little Saigon, Tuyet Luu picked up a perfect 6 1/2-pound piece of produce that looked more like a spiked cannonball than a tropical delicacy dubbed “king of the fruit.”
“If you eat it, you’ll always want it,” said Luu, 64, of Westminster, who’s eaten the fruit since she was 2 years old. “But those who don’t, they will say it smells.”
She had that right.
“It smells like puke,” said Lucille Nhan, 10, of San Diego. “I have to go to the backyard every time my mom opens one up.”
Dennis Todd makes a point to stay away from the bins. He said he once sniffed the fruit and the pungent smell has kept him from going back. “It smells like natural gas,” said Todd, 42, of Garden Grove.
Well, not quite: Natural gas is odorless but it is mixed with mercaptan so that gas leaks can be detected. It’s mercaptan’s rotten-egg smell that reminds Todd of the durian’s scent.
“He doesn’t like it, so I can’t buy it or he’ll leave the house,” said his wife, Bich Van Todd, as they pushed the shopping cart to the herb and vegetable section.
“It stinks, but it tastes good,” said Gary Bender, 63, of Huntington Beach. “It has a very unique and unpleasant smell but it doesn’t smell like something died.”
It takes precision to open a durian’s thick pointy shell. Inside, there are sections that hold yellow flesh shaped like kidneys that tastes creamy and buttery. And the smaller the seed, the better the fruit.
“It’s full of vitamins,” said Zack Hanna, 82, of Huntington Beach. He makes shakes from the fruit.
“It makes you look healthy, gives you rosy cheeks and puts a smile on your face.”
When Vietnamese refugees first began arriving in Westminster and Garden Grove in the 1970s, durians were rare in Little Saigon supermarkets and the price often hit $4.99 a pound.
But with an increase in trade and an influx of ethnic grocery stores in Little Saigon, prices are now at their lowest point: 59 cents a pound.
“People used to cook the seed and eat it too because [durian] was so expensive and rare to find and they wanted to savor every bit of it,” Luu said.
Shoppers from afar often go to Little Saigon to find durian, sold in frozen pieces or as a whole, wrapped in plastic netting.
“The prices are higher in Moreno Valley,” said Annie Tran, 41, who makes weekly durian runs to Little Saigon.
“With so many Asian grocery stores around here, the prices are low and there are many durians to choose from.”
Airport officials say they know that durian season is in full swing because they’ve seen daily cargo shipments over the last two months and passengers are storing them in their luggage.
“We can tell if you have it because we can smell it,” said Sonia Antoun, an agricultural specialist supervisor with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “It’s a strange smell. I don’t know how to describe it, but a lot of people like to bring it back as gifts for their family.”
Only durians from Thailand are allowed into the United States because that country’s fruit is not a pest risk, Antoun said. The fruit must go through an inspection for mealy bugs and a type of larvae worm.
In Vietnam, durians are prohibited at some hotels. In other Asian countries, they are also not allowed in taxis, buses or airplanes.
In Little Saigon, the durian’s popularity has led to such creations as durian shakes, durian sweet rice, durian ice cream and durian cakes.
“I love it all,” said Luu, plopping a durian in her shopping cart. “When we came over, they were hard to find and we missed it. Now it’s everywhere in Little Saigon.”