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The savor of the sewer

Posted by John Powers, Globe Staff  August 20, 2008 11:31 AM

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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.

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5 comments so far...
  1. sorry to be crass but durian tastes like a fart

    Posted by kokomjolk August 20, 08 12:52 PM
  1. Stinky tofu might smell bad, but sure tastes good. Concept is sort like your durian story. In the end, it tastes similar to plain fried tofu.

    As for the poultry, they do serve with neck and head (sometimes with avian flu too) as your ancestors did. You and spears stresses that, but at least they are juicy and have a natural taste. American boneless breast or even live chicken from boston chinatown (yes, with the neck) has no taste at all without marinade. Are you guys enjoying the marinade/spices or the chicken?

    If not for the spicy nature of korean food, i think americans would prefer that over chinese as they marinade the hell out of every dish. Ask your Alice, she would know.

    Posted by Chinaman August 20, 08 01:15 PM
  1. Andrew Zimmern couldn't eat it and that guy eats everything...enough said....

    Posted by mike M August 21, 08 10:03 AM
  1. I've never seen a ripe Durian in North America. They are all (to my knowledge) flash frozen for export before they are ripe... certainly this is the case with those I've seen in Boston. So you are not experiencing the full power and the glory of a ripe durian if you get one in the states. If you were in Asia you'd know that the shop had ripe, fresh durian before you even walked in, from the strong smell.

    Posted by AsiaGirl1 August 21, 08 11:02 AM
  1. i'm from indonesia,a country where durian is taken as the king of fruit.it's really popular here we have all kinds of durian products such as durian pancake,durian juice,durian ice cream,durian chips,durian jam,durian mooncake,glutinous rice with durian sauce.and the list still goes on and on.
    it's not that i'm a big durian fan since i can only eat 1 or 2 pcs myself (a whole durian can contain 12 or more pieces) and i limited myself not to eat this fruit too often,they say it can makes your blood pressure rise.but yeah i think you should try to taste a ripe durian in a country where they really grow durian like thailand or indonesia,etc.i bet you will experience a different sensation than eating it at other places in the world.

    Posted by luna August 23, 08 12:47 PM

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