After my duck dinner tonight -- and in this town you get the whole bird (Peking-style breast, shredded legs and wings in black bean sauce, duck soup), I opted for the roasted durian cake for dessert. Durian may be the most loved and loathed food on the planet. It's a spiked fruit which grows on trees in southeast Asia and can get as big as a basketball. It smells like sewage, but tastes like custard.
In its raw form, the odor of durian is so offensive that some cities have banned shoppers from carrying it on public transportation. Richard Sterling, the traveling food writer, likens the smell to a blend of pig manure, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock. What Anthony Bourdain, who actually likes durian, says about it probably shouldn't be printed in a family blog. (Something about a dead grandmother.) But when I heard that durian tasted like custard, I had to have it. One man's sewage is another man's savor.
I've been a custard fanatic since childhood. Flan, creme brulee, galaktobouriko, even the Gerber baby version of the stuff, which I was still spooning up as a teenager. But durian figured to be a true test of my love. I've never gone to a market to buy one (although I'm told you can get them at the Super 88 in Chinatown) and I've never seen or smelled anyone cutting one open and I've never tasted it straight out of the husk. I've sort of crept up on durian, an inch or two at a time.
The last time I was in Beijing, I had durian-flavored ice cream and it was terrific. This time, the fruit was shredded and baked in a flaky crust, so it was closer to the real thing. I broke off a piece and took a sniff and got just enough of a whiff to know why people carrying a whole durian on a bus are regarded about as cordially as lepers. Imagine a backed-up squat toilet at the Forbidden City on a hot August afternoon. Overpowering is a gentle word for it.
But I'll testify that the taste of durian is exquisite -- sort of a creamy almond -- and I ate every speck. I'm sure that the shredding and the baking eliminated much of the foul odor, but still I've decided that I'm ready for the next durian level. Maybe a plate of the cut-up fruit. I'm sure that Peanut, the tiny kewpie-doll `senior minister' at the South Beauty restaurant downtown, can have one carved up for me tomorrow night.
I'll concede that durian is not everyone's dessert dish. Alice Park, my cosmopolitan New York colleague and fellow foodie, graciously declined when I offered her a bite. She's been in Asia frequently and she's familiar with, and usually keeps at nose's length, the most extreme of the funky foods. "Ever had stinky tofu?", she asked me. It's tofu marinated in a putrid brine and the smell has been known to make Westerners run screaming into the street. If it tastes like flan, though, I'm in. Or maybe not.