Top | First Person

Hard to love

(article, Nadia Arumugam)

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If any fruit could bring you to tears, the thorny durian would be it. With a robust green rind covered entirely in sturdy squat spikes, this Asian fruit — in size and shape resembling a malformed football — can inflict scream-inducing pain, even blood, when handled flippantly. 

Its spikes, however, are nothing compared to its smell, a whiff so bewildering the 19th-century British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace described it as bearing a “waft of flavor that calls to mind cream cheese, onion sauce, sherry wine, and other incongruities.”  

Still, it wasn't due to blood or odor that I recently fought back tears over a durian. And it wasn't even a durian fruit; it was just a Tupperware containing four of the large seeds that are cradled within the inner chambers of the fruit. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Durian provokes a strong reaction."]At the English culinary magazine of which I was food editor, I was showing my colleagues the contents of said Tupperware. Across the large, open-plan office, coworkers began to sniff the air, their faces contorting in disgust. They were used to malodorous substances reeking from my corner of the office, usually in the shape of overripe cheese. But this was something new.

"Well, you’ve really outdone yourselves this time," boomed one voice. "Whatever it is, get it out of here!"

This — plus the string of obscenities that followed — was the wellspring of the tears. 

I’m not oversensitive about my food. But I’m Malaysian-born and Malaysian-bred, despite having lived 20 of my 28 years in England. And when my reeking Tupperware was cast out of the office, I felt that I, too, was being cast out with it. 

Indigenous to Malaysia, the durian is held with such affection in its homeland that Malaysians refer to it as the national fruit. At the slightest scent of durian, we will follow our noses straight to the source, eager for a spoonful of the fruit's ambrosial, custardy flesh, with its hints of vanilla, banana, and caramel. 

Those four plump yellow seeds were part of my culture and heritage. They were part of me. 

The pungent durian is central to my recollections of those formative years I lived in Malaysia. In Kuala Lumpur, when the fruit was in season — from June to August, and again in December — makeshift durian stalls would spring up on every corner of the city. Trucks would line the roadsides with piles of the fruit teetering precariously in their trailers. 

The locals would go crazy. They would squat near the ground, inches away from speeding traffic, sometimes sitting on plastic stools, and eat the durian right there amid the dust and the fumes. Their faces would be smeared by the creamy yellow flesh and their fingers stained by the indelible smell. 

There are many cultivars of durian, each one with a distinct shade of green rind and with flesh that differs in color, texture, and richness. The one labeled with the code D24 was the most desirable, and therefore the most expensive. The flesh is a bright but not too deep yellow hue; the texture is thick, smooth, and silky, much like Italian gelato, but without the fibrous quality some of the lesser durian varieties are prone to. 

My father would be interested in nothing else. He would strut from the car with feigned indifference. The seller would beckon us over to the plastic chairs and invite us to savor a seed on the house. No matter how luscious, how divine this sample, my dad would shake his head in distaste. 

And this was how the theatrical back-and-forth would begin. Determined to prove the worth of his durians, the seller would deftly slice into the rinds of a selection of his best fruit and remove a wedge exposing the flesh inside. My father would poke the flesh, take a deep whiff, and then shake the durian near his ear. Some say that if seeds rattle, the fruit is old and the flesh dry and tough. Needless to say, I never heard anything, and I suspect neither did my father. 

Then there was the flurry of negotiation, during which we would have to pretend to walk away at least twice. Eventually an agreement would be struck, and cash exchanged. Our driver would then pack the durians into the trunk, which was lined with old newspaper stored there for just this purpose, in a futile attempt to stop the car from stinking forever more. 

My grandmother had an especially healthy appetite for the fruit, and I have inherited her predilection for enjoying the flesh scooped onto slices of fresh, pillow-soft white bread. She also made the most wonderful durian ice cream. As if the fruit wasn't decadent enough in its naked, creamy glory, she would combine it with a rich custard of egg yolks and full-cream milk, the kind that leaves behind a slick of fat. And in the hot sticky days of July, my sisters and I would relish its sublime cold relief with chunks of pink and green jelly. 

My mother, too, is no less of a durian epicure. She'd wrap a durian in a towel to protect her hands and then, with an assertive hack of her cleaver, create a gash in the rind. Using her fingers, she'd then pry open the fruit with all the strength available in her five-foot frame. 

There was something so indulgent and naughty about eating durian, and I loved it that my mother, normally the arbiter of propriety, would eat with us, her fingers smothered like ours in the sticky cream, her mouth sucking like ours on the seeds, her T-shirt stained and yellowed like ours.  

So I shouldn't have been surprised, then, when a few years ago, my father announced that he had bought a durian orchard, a dusun. In fact, there was something almost inevitable about it. His love affair with the fruit had frequently driven him to the point of near insanity, or so my mother says. There were times when, as a young married man, struggling to make ends meet, my father would wait for the monthly paycheck just so he could squander every last cent on this pungent luxury. 

Our dusun is located a few hours away from the skyscrapers and gridlocked traffic of Kuala Lumpur, in the lush Johor forest. Durian trees are formidable structures, growing up to 50 meters high with branches that reach far outwards and upwards. Being so high up, nobody picks durian; the farmer must wait until the fruit drops to the ground. The fruit only falls at night, so every morning of the season, the farmer must visit the orchard to see whether a bumper crop has littered the ground or if the trees are still selfishly hoarding their boon. 

Growing up in London, durians were for me an elusive luxury only to be savored during school holidays or when my father smuggled them across international waters. Commercial airlines generally prohibit passengers from carrying the smelly fruit on board, but my father, in a characteristic defiance of authority, would go to ridiculous lengths to disguise his contraband. First he froze the durian in a plastic box, then wrapped it in sheets of newspaper and layers of plastic bags. Sadly, these air-freighted treats arrived more and more infrequently as time went on. No doubt even my father was aware that his luck might run out.

No other fruit has polarized opinion more. Sitting at my desk, fighting back tears, I thought that perhaps the smelly yellow seeds belonged in a different world. Like my father, I felt defiant. So I leaned forward and tucked into the durian. As I sucked the flesh from my fingers, I closed my eyes and imagined myself back in my grandmother's kitchen, licking every last bit of durian ice cream from my bowl.

p(bio). A native of Malaysia, Nadia Arumugam is a New York City-based food writer and cookbook author.

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