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Mar 2, 2013

Durian - King of Fruits

A durian lover in Singapore in 1950s
The description of durian as the "King of Fruits" is controversial and not unanimously agreed by everyone to fall in love on first bite or first smell.

Personal food preference is not a matter of right or wrong. As the idiom says "One man's meat is another man's poison".

No other known fruits is as controversial as the durian upon their first encounter.  They either love it or hate it.  But food preference could change after an initial "food culture shock" and there are people who became durian converts.  Its a challenge!  "Who dares wins!"

For some people, the durian is the king of all fruits. It smells delicious and tastes like no other,  addictive. For some others, the smell of durian from a distance of 5 meters was already made nauseous. Especially eat the fruit! Westerners in general do not like the smell of durian which according to them “rotten as latrine”.

"The proof of the pudding is in the eating" as the saying goes.  The taste as well as the scent too.

Durian lovers all over the world have often heard negative remarks about the durian in regard to taste and smell.

American Nathalie Lussier, "The Raw Foods Witch"  gave a speech about durian to a class of University students in 2007. She explained the pros and cons of durian, what this fruit looks like, and why it causes so much controversy to watch the YouTube video:



Unfortunately, you won’t get to smell the fruit by watching the video. That’s something that only the audience had the pleasure or in some cases, displeasure of experiencing themselves, she said.

Since she gave that speech about durian in 2007, a lot has happened.

In January 2009, she traveled to Singapore and tasted her first fresh durian. Nathalie was converted to a durian lover and taken her love of durian to a whole new level, boldly. 

The additional archived photos with courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore (NAS) and information about durians on this blog.

Durian Fruit can best be described as having a succulent, creamy filling but smelling like stinky socks - don't let that dissuade you from trying it.


Durian lovers out there: the taste and texture of durians really differ depending on where they are grown and if they are fresh or frozen.


It was also interesting to see that there are so many different types of durians with names like D90 and D10. There are also local nicknames for different variety of durian fruits, like “red prawn” for fruits with a more red interior.

Nick named ‘King of Fruits’; durian is highly valued in Southeast Asian countries. Durian has a very distinguished smell and its skin is thorny and hard. The dimension of a durian fruit is about 30 – 15 cm and its weight is about three kilograms.


Durian flowers bloom in a cluster and there are about three to thirty identical clusters borne on its trunk and large branches. Every flower has sepals and about five to six petals. Durian is round although the oblong shape is not irregular. The shells are green or brown while its flesh is a luminous yellowish or reddish color.


Durian planting in the 1920s

Long ago before durians became popular and the fruits were commercially marketed in Malaysia, Singapore and various countries in South-east Asia,  durians were planted in the compounds of villagers' kampongs.

A villager with a home-grown durian in 1920

Delivery of durians in lorry-loads

A customer grading a durian by sniffing
A durian market at Beach Road, Singapore in 1974
It was durians galore at the Durian Centre in Beach Road with fruit piled up in lorries and baskets.  Daily, since the start of the durian season from the beginning of the month, wholesalers have brought their durians in lorries and unloaded them in the Centre to sell to the public.

Durian Stalls in Singapore in 1960s

Durian stalls along the roadside at BeachRoad
Durian stall at Balestier Road outside the Tua Peh Kong Temple
Durian stalls along the roadside at Queens Street

Reproduced below the blog-related incidental article with a collection of insignificant or obscure items, details, or information - little known or rare facts. Written by Gerald Hawkins 50 years ago and published in The Straits Times Annual for 1953.

DURIAN - delectable or detestable?
 "I have a liking old for thee,
 though manifold
 stories I know
 are told not to thy credit.

 How one or two at most
 drops make a cat a ghost,
 unless except to roast
 Doctors have said it."

So said Calverly of another dubious indulgence. What of durian, the most discussed of all Malayan fruits?

Courtesy demands that it should be formally introduced so let us make a bow to the science of Botany. Botanists have a name for it, Durio zibethinus roseiflorus, and this is the red-fllowered durian which has the reputation of giving the most delicious fruits. The name zibethinus is from the Italian zibetto meaning strong smelling like the civet.

The Malay word durian means "very thorny", aptly describing the outward appearance. A member of the Malvaceae or Mallow family, the durian is thus cousin to a large number of economic plants like cotton and kapok, and that wholly unattractive vegetable, the slimy "lady's fingers", as well as to the more decorative tenants of the garden, the hibiscus and the hollyhock.

The genus Durio, for the Malays, consists of two types, and those that are not the one which produces the luscious fruit are classed together as Durian Daun or Durian Burong. These later have also some economic value in their timber and in certain medicinal products obtained from roots, stem, and bark.

C. N. Ridley says the durian is not indigenous to Malaya. It would be interesting to know whence and how it came. It seems to have come from Western Malaysia. A. W. Wallace, writing in 1869, describes it thus: "The durian grows on a large and lofty forest tree somewhat resembling an elm in its general character, but with a more smooth and scaly bark. The fruit is round and slightly oval, about the size of a large coconut, and of green colour and covered all over with short stout spines of which the points are very strong and sharp. There are five cells, satiny white, within and each filled with an oval mass of cream-coloured pulp, embedded in which are two or three seeds about the size of chestnuts.

"The pulp is the eatable part and its consistence and flavour are indescribable. A rich butter-like custard hghly flavoured with almonds gives the best generl idea of it, but intermingled with it come wafts of flavour that call to mind cream cheese, onion sauce, brown sherry, and other incongruities. Then there is a rich glutinous smoothness in the pulp which nothing else possesses, but which adds to its delicacy. It produces no nausea or other bad effect, and the more you eat of it the less inclined you are to stop. In fact to eat durian is a new sensation, worth a voyage to the East to experience."

Burbridge also tried to describe its flavour: "The durian is a natural macedoine of fruits - one of Dame Nature's 'made dishes' - and, if it be possible for you to imagine the flavour of a combination of corn-flour, rotten cheese, nectarines, crushed filbers, a dash of pineapple, a spoonful of old dry sherry, thick cream, apricot pulp, and a soupcon of garlic, all reduced to the consistency of a rich custard, you have a glimmering idea of the durian."

The fruit is rich in vitamins and is supposed to be an aphrodisiac. Hamilton, writing 200 years ago, remarks on this: "The durian is another excellent fruit, but offensive to some people's noses, but when once tasted the smell vanishes. The pulp or meat is very hot and nourishing, and instead of surfeiting they fortifie the stomach, and are a great incentive to wantonness.

The fruit need not be plucked for it falls off the tree when ripe. During the season, a shed is built near the trees, and when the fruit falls and rolls away, the watcher in the shed traces it and retrieves it from the undergrowth. It is not necessary to have the nose of a bloodhound to trace the scent, if scent is quite the word.

Aborigines are known to fell jungle round a durian tree in order to camp round it and collect the fruits in season. In Jerantut and Mentakab Malays and Sakai build hut high in the trees and come down by a ladder when the fruits fall. This puts one over the elephant which usually has first pick while tiger, pig, rhino, seladang, tapir and monkey get what is left. There are tales of Malaya who have gathered durian only to be themselves subsequently gathered by elephants. Usually there is one crop a year, but sometimes there is a second fruiting.

Opinions vary but it seems to be generally accepted that the fruit be eaten within 36 hours of its fall. If it is so eaten there will be less of the odour and flavour which appear to develop or increase later. Malays regard the fruit as a tonic but a decoction of the roots is used in cases of fever of three days standing. The leaves are used in a medicinal bath for jaundice and also for bathing the head of a fever patient.

Prisoners of war used to eat the seeds which had nothing to recommend them but a certain filling quality. Because the seeds do not retain their vitality after being dried, the tree is difficult to introduce in new areas at some distance. It is extensively found throughout Malaysia but has not been carried as far as Burma or Borneo. Had it been possible to grow the tree in Burma, the Kings of Burmah would have done so and would not have depended on runners to bring them supplies from Moulmein.

The skin or wall of the fruit has also its uses. Ash from the wall is used by dyers in Pekan and Pattani for bleaching silk. The wall of the fruit is mixed into cakes for special occasions by the Chinese.

The edible part is botanically the aril. Especially when there's a glut Malays cook small and inferior fruits. They boil the aril with sugar and call the dish lempok. Or they salt the aril and call it tempoyak. Many people use the fruit in cakes and it is said that many who refuse the fruit au naturel can yet enjoy the cakes.

The timber is of poor quality and is used mainly for wooden clogs and very rough timbering for outside buildings and sheds. It is brittle and soon ruined by white ants if in contact with the earth. Out of the timber the Malays also make masts for their perahus.

Stamford Raffles and Durian  

Durians have acquired an adventitious fame, for clearly a fruit with such a disgusting smell must have in compensation special qualities of taste. It has even become a sort of shibboleth to test the true Malayan. If he likes durian he is a real old-timer; if he dislikes it he is a sinkeh, a new boy in the Malayan class.

As to the smell, many will agree with Stamford Raffles. Abdullah Munshi says that the great man could not bear it: "One day while Mr. Raffles was in the middle of discussing with his Malay clerk the reply which he wished to be sent to the Ruler of Sambas, one of the Malays suddenly came in bearing six durians. Thinking that Mr. Raffles liked to buy the durians he brought them into the house and stood waiting near the door. But as soon as Mr. Raffles caught the smell of the durian he held his nose and ran upstairs. Everyone was surprised to see him run like for they did not realise that he could not stand the smell of a durian.

"A moment later he recalled the Sepoy guard and said: "Who brought those durians here?" When they pointed to the Malay he told him to leave quickly and ordered the guard: 'Never allow anyone to bring durians to the door again.' From that day onwards no one dared to bring any more durians. It was then that I discovered the truth that Mr. Raffles did not know how to eat durian. So far from eating them, he could not even bear to smell them. After a little while he came down again saying, 'The smell of these durians has given me a headache. That food is nauseating'."

"Hearing his words we all smiled to think that his attitude should be so different from that of other people. Something that they liked he hated. After that if anyone came carrying durians he was given away by the guard."

Others beside Raffles complain of headache from the smell of durian and many women are unable to sleep well during the durian season because of the smell.

In 1875 the Resident Councillor of Penang entertained a high official journey from England to China. The Residency garden had some excellent durian trees and the fruit was produced for the distinguished visitor who remarked, "This fruit may have been very good last season but if you will excuse me I would rather not venture on it now." He should have shown more enterprise for he probably liked his venison, his pheasant, his hare, well-hung, and his cheese rotten-ripe.

The only real objection to the durian is its smell. Unfortunately this clings to the consumer. It is subtle but unmistakable. If, on a jungle trip, you have ever walked behind an aboriginal who has fed on salt fish and durian you will soon notice that he suffers from something that his bes friend should tell him about.

It is unfortunate that Queen Victoria, who had the reputation of having eaten every known fruit, could not have tasted one and given her expert opinion. But perhaps she would not have been amused and might disastrouly have had, in those days of "sensibility", an attack of "the vapours." Her forbear, King James I, referring to tobacco smoking said:

"A custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless."

What uninhibited adjectives in that heyday of vigorous pamphleteering would he have hurled at the durian?

If the durian is calmly sampled it will be enjoyed. The Malays are passionately fond of it and its incongruities of taste have distinct fascination. They hold that it was doubtless possible for God to have made a better fruit, but nevertheless he has done so.

But the smell remains. Even the flower smells like sour milk or a sick baby. Why cannot plant breeders evolve both a scentless durian, and its chief rival among Malayan fruits, a mangosteen with less rind and more flesh? Pending that millinium you must decide for yourself: delectable or detestable? Delightful or disgusting? Dubious or delicious? And demand another dollop, damn it.
Esplanade - Theatre on the Bay, Singapore

 Singapore's famous Esplanade - Theatre on the Bay is shaped like the Durian - 'King of the Fruits'.

The building looks like “The Twin Durian” the tropical fruit and fondly refer to it as the  “Singapore Durian”.

The Esplanade is one of the world’s busiest art centers, officially opened on 12 October, 2002 and offers a staggering range of programmes which caters to all audiences. In addition to Esplanade presents performances, other offerings by diverse presenters complement the programmes at the centre, ensuring that there is something for everyone.


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2 Comments:

Blogger dashing hongeng said...

Very well researched article on my favourite fruit. We used to have few trees and we really enjoyed eating the fruits. My grandfather used to farm durians from fruit estate. After surveying a pre-mature fruit laden tree he would make an offer for the fruit. Then he made a payment. When the fruit ripened, he constructed a hut near the tree and waited for the durians to drop. He then sold whatever he collected. Sometimes he made a loss due to low quality yield.

March 4, 2013 at 11:35 PM  
Blogger Thimbuktu said...

Thank you Dashing Hongeng for sharing memories of your grandfather's plantation. You must have eaten the best pick of the home-grown durians to enjoy before the fruits were sold by your grandfather ;)

March 5, 2013 at 1:03 PM  

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