The scent of a durian
In Singapore, discovering the durian, South-East Asia’s king of fruits, is a sensory and cultural experience
I first took notice of the durian thanks to a sticker at the Botanical Gardens in Singapore. I had, of course, come across the durian within hours of landing in Singapore—which is to say, smelt its strong garlicky musk on my excursions to the hawker centre and scuttled away quickly.
“Did you know that the king of fruits is pollinated by bats?” said a sticker on a wall. What rot, I thought, mangoes are definitely not made like that. The mango has long held kingship in my part of the world. It’s not just how they taste of summer evenings and French kisses, they look regal too. But this sticker featured a rugby ball with prickles.
It was the durian. Their king was different. And bats? Did that account for the distinctive smell—that heavy musk of industrial-strength garlic? Finer noses have smelt other things. Food writer Richard Sterling described it as “pig-shit, turpentine, onions, garnished with a gym sock”. The Wikipedia entry on durians mentions notes of raw sewage. “No durians allowed on board,” Singapore buses set it out in writing. There is a no-durian sign on the MRT trains. Violations carry a fine of S$500 (around Rs23,900). It was the unexpectedness of bats that made up my mind. Nothing I knew of them had prepared me for the wholesomeness of fruit-making. I would hold my breath and take a bite.
July in Singapore—the air smells of tropical rain storms, and durian. The king is everywhere—hawker centres, supermarkets, cut-fruit stalls, or just around the corner. As soon as you step out of the air conditioning, you smell it. This is probably why the durian hasn’t travelled widely into the world. The truth is that there is no fruit like it. It is a crème caramel whipped to perfection—firm to the touch, soft and creamy on the tongue, and sweet, with a pungent smell. “The more you eat of it, the less you feel inclined to stop,” the naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace wrote after encountering the durian in present-day Indonesia. “In fact, to eat durians is a new sensation worth a voyage to the East to experience.”
The durian tree, belonging to the hibiscus/mallow family, is said to be native to Sumatra and Borneo; some sources say it grows semi-wild in Malaysia and Myanmar. It is primarily cultivated in Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Myanmar. Some farming is also done in China, Vietnam, Singapore, Laos, Cambodia and northern Australia. While durian is primarily eaten fresh, without embellishment, it is also preserved with brown sugar and then boiled or fried for lempok (a local durian toffee). Malays also salt the durian and add prawn paste to make tempoyak (a Malaysian condiment).
There are numerous varieties of durian, with identifiably different shapes, colour, flavour and texture.
In the West, the durian is linked inextricably to its smell. But it is, in fact, very nutritious, packed with the B-complex of vitamins, vitamin C, potassium, copper, iron, manganese, fibre and more. Expectedly, given its rich creaminess, it is calorific: 147 calories for every 100g of fruit.
The durian looks a bit like our Indian jackfruit, another large fruit with a powerful smell. Yet our affection for jackfruit lacks the flamboyance of their durian love. We are sheepish about the smell, though it is really quite inoffensive compared to the durian. Singapore, on the other hand, stacks durian everywhere and digs in with relish. I’ve heard this about Malaysia and Indonesia too—there is no respite from the durian.
I fell in love with it. Breathless love, because I hold my nose when I eat it. The first time I took a bite, it was like landing on a new shore. Until then, Singapore had felt familiar. Smooth underground trains, the smell of air conditioning, Zara, H&M, Starbucks. Yet another gleaming developed world city, awash with the symptoms of globalization. The durian held the thrill of discovering a new place—hot, complex, unpredictable and so full of pleasure. “O my America! my new-found-land,” the poet John Donne wrote, and I felt something similar. For him, love opened up a continent’s worth of possibilities, a continent’s worth of knowing. For me this place that loves the durian, this region with serious political issues and serious multiculturalism, surprising economic growth and equally surprising conservatism, was suddenly charged with newness.
Several connections are drawn between the durian and sex. Geylang, the red-light district in Singapore, is also the place for good durian. Unsurprisingly, the durian has the reputation of being a potent aphrodisiac. An old Malay saying has a risqué spin: “When the durian falls down, the sarong rises.”
But it’s not just in the moment, in the flesh, durian is also about the remembering and the yearning and the reimagining in the long months when you go without. It has been a year now, and I can’t stop thinking about it. No, this is the real thing. The durian is love.
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