Aug 2020 Edit: On retrospect, this article was quite badly written. To be updated. Meanwhile, here’s a video:
Killer of kittens, the best food in Zelda for getting hearts and responsible for a gas leak in a Melbourne campus, the Durian is a fruit that you should try at least once in your life, even if the result is that you feel like barfing. What??? Then why? Because the other end of the spectrum is the discovery of a rich, custardy, creamy delicacy that is like none other. “Cream cheese” “Rotten onions” “Smelly Socks” “Alcoholic” “Meat” “flavored with almonds” “French-kissing with a dead grandmother” “Exquisite”… there are as many descriptions of the taste as the English vocabulary. You either love it or hate it. Tigers love it.
What is Durian?
The King of Fruits! Or so called that way in South East Asia, most notably in Thailand (300+ varieties), Indonesia (100+ varieties) and Malaysia (100+ varieties). Hey, in Singapore we like it enough to call our national performing arts centre “Durian”.
Though found commonly in those countries above, the fruit is native to Borneo and Sumatra. Durio zibethinus L. is the most important species of all of them, since it is cultivated commercially and available in the international market. I’m not really going to bother with botanical names, but if you are interested you can visit the Durian Info blog.
With a green colored thorny husk (the namesake of the fruit, for the old Malay word “dûriḥ” meaning “thorn”) with a white to golden yellow custard covered seed, and the size of a football, you might mistake it for a jack-fruit or sour-sop. But go near one, and the odor, whether fragrant or like rotten dumpster to you, is unmistakable. Fun fact: Durian is banned in airports, hotels, and public transport, and it is typical to wrap packaged Durian in industrial cling wrap so the smell can’t escape.
Of course, if you read the title of this article, the Durian is more than just a fruit you feed to animals and eat for shits and giggles. It’s serious business.
South East Asian Love – A Gastronomic Dream
There are Durian reaction videos with millions of views, so it makes sense to do reactions of the past amirite? Unfortunately I haven’t got the budget or technology to film the past, so we have to make do with existing texts.
Throughout history, South East Asians retained the same love for Durians. But “love” is kind of an understatement. Jakuns in peninsular Malaysia, as recorded in 1848, “for six weeks or two months, they eat nothing but durians” during Durian season (Durian is actually highly nutritious, but you aren’t going to expect a blog with Fat in its name to tell you about that are ya). We are freaking gaga over Durians.
Durian, Controller of Politics
To illustrate my point, in the period of the British Rule in Burma (1824 to 1948), Burmese kings demanded Durians to be “sent nearly a thousand miles by sea every year by relays of swift boat from Peninsular Burma to the royal city of Ava”. Durians were used as a gift for diplomatic relationships by Sir Arthur Phayre with King Mindon. When one Burmese minister was informed that the British were planning to build a railway to Mandalay, the Burmese politician rejoiced. “Excellent”, “then we shall be able to get our durians fresh”.
Fuck Work We Have Durians
In 1930s Kelantan, despite being hired as tappers, the Sakai people in the just randomly disappeared.
[T]hey have proved good workers; but the nomad instinct comes out. One day the lot of them decamp without any explanation: they have heard, perhaps that there is a durian tree fruiting in the jungle some miles away and they have gone off to there to live in their native fashion in the vicinity until the fruit crop is finished. Then they move on elsewhere.Singapore Free Press, 13 June 1935, p. 8.
That’s right, Durian season came and they decided that money is probably less important than Durians.
Emily Innes, wife to the Langat, Selangor magistrate, in the early 1870s, recorded “the durian seasons were considered by many Malays to be the great events of the year … and most of our boatmen, police, and servants, used to make themselves ill by indulging to excess in the luscious fruit. A carpenter in the middle of a job once asked Mr Innes’ permission to knock off work and go home for three days to eat durian in his father’s garden, and Mr Innes knew the country and the people too well to refuse.”
Even the more civilized people who had to buy instead of gather Durians bought 30-40 good Durians at a go, and ate so much Durian that there were nose bleeding. Excess Durians were later on cooked together with rice.
To add on to that, newspaper reports from 1874 to 1925 has thefts and fights over Durian. And did I mention that in 1925 two policemen were arrested for stealing Durians? The true definition of fuck work. If you thought things weren’t crazy enough, by “fights” I mean having 5 people dead between a village fighting over Durian tree ownership, and apparently it is not uncommon for “entire villages have been wiped out in the struggle to possess it”.
14th Century to Early 17th Century – Fruit of the Gods
From the Roman Empire (27 BC – 395 AD) time period, since before the West had known anything about the East, the East is said to be an object of fascination. Economic ties with Asia were severed with the fall of the Roman Empire, so exploration only resumed in 13th century in order to meet demands of early forms of elite consumerism. Imagine seasons of Game of Thrones to have a wait time of 900 years, with hype building up on the meantime. That’s the amount of hype the West had built up for the East. The East was “the environs of Paradise, the place of the original Garden but also of the original Sin”.
What does that got to do with the Durian? As any hype-inducing fan will do, they talk. Merchants and pilgrims were the ones who started the expedition, with the first encounters in Portuguese Malacca (its conquering in 1511, but like any good hyping fan they start speculating before season release). There were talks of the smell of the Durian, but the records at this early stages made the Durian “an exotically fragrant stink”.
The first record in 1448 of an Italian merchant, Nicolò de‟ Conti, described “the taste varies, like that of cheese”. Later on the Portuguese apothecary Tomé Pires, about 1512 to 1515, described the “duryões” as tasty, (“gustosos”), handsome (“fremosos”), and the best fruit in the world “a melhor fruita q ha no mundo”. The very lovely, darling fruit (“fruita muito mimosa”) was even compared by an international merchant community to Malayan dark-skinned maidens “moças malaias”.
And in the 1570s, “sweeter and more scented than Blancmange” (“gusto suaviore odoratioreque quam sit condimentu illud abhispanis manjar blanco appellatum”) was said. Records around this time seem to not mention anything about unpleasant smells, until :
In Malacca there is a fruit so pleasant both for taste and smell, that it excelleth all other fruites both of India, & Malacca, although there are many both excellent and very good. This fruit is called in Malayo (which is the Prouince wherein it groweth) Duriaoen …. This fruit is hot and moist …. Such as neuer eate of it before, when they smell it at the first, thinke it senteth like a rotten Onyon, but hauing tasted it, they esteeme it aboue all other fruits, both for taste and savour. This fruite is also in such account with the learned Doctors, that they think a man can neuer be satisfied therewith, and therefore they giue this fruite an honourable name, and write certaine Epigrammes thereof …. Hereupon, and because they are so pleasant a taste, the common saying is, that men can neuer be satisfied with them.
Dutch merchant Jan Huyghen van Linschoten in his Itinerario (travel account) of 1596
Italian Jesuit Christoforo Borri, in the 17th century, once had an initiation in Malacca and could not stand the smell of the fruit when opened directly from the husk. But when he was offered it again on a plate at dinner, he thought it so delicious that he asked “what cook dress‟s it so rarely?”. To which he was answered, “It was no other cook but God himself”.
Mid 17th and early 19th Century – Delicious Excrement
You probably didn’t think “shit” and “delicious” can be in the same sentence until Durians. Between mid 17th and early 19th century the smell started to be in more records, being compared to human excrement, rotten food, onions, but which would appear fragrant or disappear upon eating.
A physician in 1620s, Batavia, de Bondt praised the diuretic and digestive properties of Durians but warned against their odour (“foetorem”), and for the first-time tasters (“primum gustantibus”), they are sickening and nauseating (“fastidiosi & nauseabondi”).
Giovanni Francesco Gemelli-Careri, an Italian lawyer who did a world round trip, recalled his Durian encounter near Manila as “much celebrated duriones” in a 1699 writing, “an ungrateful taste of onion to the nose”, after which the fruit, “when grown familiar, becomes most delicious to all strangers”.
Scottish privateer Alexander Hamilton, in Malacca between 17th and 18th century, presents “Durean” as an “excellent fruit, but offensive to some people‟s nose, for it smells very like human excrements”. “[O]nce tasted,” however, “the smell vanishes”.
Take note that the above are considered “Adventurers”, and the following accounts will be more of diplomats, or the social elites.
William Marsden, a pioneering orientalist and learned secretary to the government in the British garrison of Bencoolen in the 1770s, published the following in 1811:
The durian (durio zibethinus) … is a rich fruit, but strong, and even offensive, in taste as well as smell, to those who are not accustomed to it … yet the natives (and others who fall into their habits) are passionately addicted to it, and during the time of its continuing in season live almost wholly upon its luscious and cream-like pulp; whilst the rinds, thrown about in the bazaar, communicate their scent to the surrounding atmosphere
Marsden 1811: 98)
Captain James Low, a British officer and member of the Royal Asiatic Society, from 1826 Penang:
Curiosity, not taste, first prompts the newsettler to attempt this fruit. But although tasting it, as he generally does, with a prejudice against it, he not unfrequently [sic] ends in acquiring a strong relish for it. With the Malays, the desire for this fruit is a passion, to satisfy which they will perform toilsome journeys and brave danger
19th Century to Early 20th Century – The Forbidden Fruit
In the 19th and 20th century, dining was an important part of elite social life, and many exotic tastes, ingredients, delicacies are adapted to their palates (British curry being an example). Think about dinner parties as the place to flaunt. If you are able to bring perishable goods from another continent and casually give them away to people it probably means you are pretty rich. Tropical fruits were typically seen in grand dinner parties as a grand finale, but Durian isn’t to be seen anywhere in these parties, only meant to be enjoyed in secret pleasure. Durians were basically drugs, and Europeans who were publicly seen to be enjoying the Durian were seen as uncivilized.
John T. Thomson, a surveyor of the East India Company to Malaya in the 1830s, recounts at the house of an East Indian dinner party, after “[f]owl, ham, and sweet potatoes, wine and pale ale”, “the cream of the banquet” – is served: “pumaloes [sic], oranges, plantains, and dukus”. With the host proudly presenting the Durian as well, and Thomson explodes:
Shades of Cloacina! What is this? … I look at the contents of the fruit dish, and learn that the atrociously foetid odours come from it. … I would have held my nose did good breeding allow it, but I resigned myself to my fate, and looked on. My host proceeded to open up the disgusting entrails of the horrid-looking vegetable, and they send forth an odour of rotten eggs stirred up with decayed onions.
Thomson clearly didn’t like the Durian, watching his host family enjoy “such an abomination”. “Their attacks are vigorous, their relish is astonishing”, to the extent that the traveler “must admit that, for some little time, [his] new friends sank in [his] estimation”; “I could not have imagined such a thing of them”.
John Camera, editor of the Straits Times in the 1860s and 1870s, said in 1854 eating the Durian “is generally made in bravado, and so singular is the fascination it possesses, that if the new arrival can overcome his repugnance sufficiently to swallow the coating of one or two seeds, he will in all probability become strongly attached to it”. “However, that the most passionate lovers of Durian are disposed to acknowledge their taste.” “There is something decidedly unclean about the fruit; a tacit acknowledgement of this is, I think, to be gathered from the fact that it never appears on any gentleman‟s table, but is devoured in silence and solitude in some out-of-the-way part of the house, and a good bath indulged afterwards.”
Botanist Frederick Burbidge, in 1880 recounting a stop in Singapore:
[A] natural macédoine – one of Dame Nature‟s „made dishes‟ – and if it is possible for you to imagine the flavour of a combination of corn flour and rotten cheese, nectarines, crushed filberts, a dash of pineapple, a spoonful of old dry sherry, thick cream, apricot-pulp, and a soupçon of garlic, all reduced to the consistency of a rich custard, you have a glimmering idea of the durian.
And then added later “you may enjoy the Durian, but you should never speak of it outside your dwelling”. Eating Durian was considered so shameful that it was said to be “social suicide”.
Eating Durian seems to be an addictive thing, since in 1903 a Briton came up with a wonderful “recipe for the manufacture of artificial durians”:
Take a peel of garlic, crush it well, rub the juice in a wine glass with good thick cream with a pinch of sugar (loaf), then … think of Durians and eat it,
With then later suggesting “the addition of half a thoroughly ripened hen-egg, preferably the egg of a fish eating hen”. Yeah I don’t care whether you have the culinary skills of a 3 year old and never tasted Durian, but that wouldn’t even come close to tasting like it.
In a Straits Times article in 1935 “the employee suspected of durianising” will “be sacked” when nearing Durian season.
Some even came up with theories that Europeans liking Durian is a circumstance that only happened because they were in the jungle. Sir Herbert White, Lieutenant Governor of Burma from 1905 to 1910, explain that “many Europeans regard[ed] this fruit as a delicacy” with a “theory”: “the taste was painfully acquired by officers stationed in remote places where Durians grow and where there is nothing to do”. Anna Forbes, in reaction to Sir Alfred Wallace’s claim for Durian which was “worth a travel to the East”, disagrees with “We are not in a position to judge from his standpoint: we did not meet it fresh fallen in the forest … and in circumstances in which most gastronomic comforts are necessarily denied. Perhaps in his place I also should be inclined to say that it is unsurpassed as a food of the most exquisite flavour.”
Durian: causes addiction and brings shame to your family. Signs of withdrawal symptoms. Totally drugs.
Durian Zombie Apocalypse
What happens in Singapore around the 1900s can only be described as an impending Zombie Apocalypse (partially) caused by Durians.
Durians, a Zombie Parasite
Let me remind you that Durians are addictive. All the immigrants who came seeking riches? Addicts who are now host to the Durian parasite, fanatics seeking to ingest more Durians in season (which was around June – September back then).
In early July 1907, a Municipal Commissioner warned that “garbage would appear to accumulate more rapidly than it can be dealt with”, and that this was “likely to be more felt when the Durian Season [would be] in full swing”.
In June 1926, once “the amount of reed refuse had … increased sixty percent … due to the fruit season”, notwithstanding “[e]very effort to keep the town free from refuse, the instant the tubs were emptied they were refilled”, with the result that “[w]hole streets were strewn with durian and others skins”. The following year one disgusted observer praised “the Sanitary Board coolies as they slowly pick up the skins”, but complained that “the aftermath of durian feasts by the roadside presents quite a horrid spectacle on the morning after”.
Durians were such a problem that they even caused traffic congestion and damaged motor tires, even resulting in car accidents.
[H]undreds of the durian skins … scattered over the public roads are alike dangerous to horsemen and pedestrians, particularly at night.Straits Times, 31 July 1855, p. 4.
This continued well into the 1950s, and made “the stretch between North Bridge Road and Beach Road almost impassable”. In 1972, Minister of the Environment Lim Kim San even suggested “$1 duty on each durian fruit imported into Singapore, to cover the high disposing fruit of the skins”. The problems only escalated as the city developed, with “fruit stalls sprout[ing] along Adam Road to do a brisk trade in durians”; “motorists could not resist the temptation to stop”, and a car braked “abruptly to avoid hitting a durian lover who had drawn up by the kerb suddenly”, as reported in Straits Times 1982.
Yeah, Durian addiction became such a big problem causing congestion and garbage problems that the government had to come in and impose taxes.
A Disease Ridden City
Remember that Durian skins are thorny, smell, and huge? Hey, a perfect vessel for carrying disease, blood, and all things terrible if not disposed properly! Did I also mention that Malaria, Cholera, Typhoid, opium addiction was pretty common?
Singapore streets had hawkers, theaters, brothels, housing, trade areas, all set up close to each other, only starting to form semblance of a city. Different ethnicity, lack of effective sewage systems, and poor healthcare meant a lot of random chaos going in there. People also were too poor or uneducated to do anything about the waste they produced.
Singapore in early 1900s smelled. Imagine if you hosted a party at the house of a commonly hated person, and invited 50 horny teenagers to wreck havoc with the promise of alcohol and drugs. The washroom is probably what Singapore smelled like back then, but worse. Or as in a correspondent of the Free Press in 1910:
smells not only vary according to the time of the day, the heat of the sun, the day of the week (Sunday is a remarkably strong day, because then the Municipal Conservancy rests from its labours …) and the fruit month, but they also vary inversely as the square of the distance from the source of the flavour.
“perambulating garbage carts, and perambulating ‘sati’ stalls, with their skewers of spiced cats-meat awaiting the charcoal. Chinese foods, stalls, boiled, fried, and roast. Copra sheds with the flavour one associates with rancid bacon. The abattoir with the peculiar flavour of fresh blood. Oily and irony flavours from the engineers … [and] the smell of coffin-woods”
Yeah, not a fun place unless your objective is to contract 10 different diseases and interact with people who presumably moved a little lifeless.
Still not convinced that Durians are like drugs?
The durian seller is a man of mystery. He sets up his temporary stall at the entrance of a coffee shop. For less than two months business is brisk. Then the durian season finishes; and the great prehistoric fruits vanish from the Singapore street scene. With them goes the durian seller.Straits Times, 9 March 1950, p. 11.
Mr Edwin Tongue, then Superintendent of the Detective Branch, was heard as testimony by the Hawker Committee appointed in 1931:
Cantonese hawkers present the most difficult problem in Singapore. They also control the durian trade from up-country […] they are potential gangsters and criminals. Many thousands of them could be deported with advantage.Report of the Committee Appointed to Investigate the Hawker Question (1932), p.17.
A fruit that causes its consumer to go batshit addicted and indifferent to its rotten smell, people ridden with disease, streets in complete disorder and mystery men handling out the fruit with an unknown organization? What is this? Resident Evil?
Hopefully, after an article talking about excrements, rot, disease, and a parasitic fruit you have built up an appetite for Durians. Research for a Durian Fat Guide, how to eat and select them is in the works.
And oh, what happened to Singapore? Just boring things like order and better systems coming into place resulting in the metropolitan city state you see today. But my theory is that if it wasn’t controlled we would all now be Durians.
Useful Durian Resources
- Master’s Thesis, The Stinky King, a Social and Cultural History of the Durian – I have essentially taken all the sources he used, removed his social science explanation and then added my own. The thesis comes from a history and social sciences perspective, so it might be a little bit biased in trying to push the idea that perceptions of Durian was influenced by sociocultural circumstances, but a fantastic resource regardless.
- The Stinky King: Western Attitudes toward the Durian in Colonial Southeast Asia – If you’re intrigued by Andrea’s work (which has resulted into my article, and I know you do, cause you’re reading this), also check out this link, which uses the previous thesis for the academic journal “Food, Culture, and Society”.
- Durian Info – A blog dedicated entirely to the Durian. You can find information on species names, how to grow them, how to eat them, where to find them.
- Durian on Wikipedia – for how Durians got from Borneo and Sumatra to beyond and stuff
- Singapore’s National Library Durian Article
- National Archives of Singapore – for not so pretty pictures and other things old
And finally a disclaimer: As if it shouldn’t be obvious enough if you read the article, many things here are dramatized.