by Lenny Karpman
More than twenty years ago the King of Thailand was about to celebrate a landmark birthday, so he and his government planned a long list of special events and invited expatriate Thais from prominent families to return home and join the celebration. Yao, a Thai friend of mine was among the invitees. I went along.
“Let’s go find some durian, you know – the stinky fruit,” she proclaimed with a smile. I returned her smile with a little apprehension. I was usually impervious to all varieties of natural and synthetic aromas. Not so that Sunday in Bangkok. My diminutive soft-spoken friend from San Francisco was on the home turf of her family and her childhood. She was my guide for the day. Her feather-like hold on my arm steered me through the bustle of the Sunday crowds. There, at the weekend market on the edge of the city, thousands of shoppers gathered to buy everything from plaid boxer shorts and eyeliner to hundred kilo live pigs. We were on a durian quest.
Without any warning, she tightened her grip so it felt like an over-inflated blood pressure cuff. Yaowapa erupted in a shrill staccato, “Smell the perfume! Smell it? Smell it?” I inhaled hard, with tightly sealed lips, forcing a jet stream through my nose and immediately wished I hadn’t. The assault on my olfactory sense was worse than a compost heap on a muggy day. Whatever it was, I was sure that it had been regurgitated. My eyes watered. She dragged me headlong into the crowded aisle past the lemongrass and galangal stands, past the caged monkeys, past the chest high pyramid of shallots, to the star attraction that day – the ripe durian.
Yao was only one of a horde of delighted shoppers, who smiled widely and chattered in a cacophony of nasal singsong, so much louder than usual dulcet tones. We squeezed and squirmed through the throng to the front row. Spread out before us was a fifty foot long display of football sized yellow-green fruit covered with pyramidal spines an inch long, looking like World War I floating mines. People were caressing the durian, raising them up toward their downward tilted noses to sniff the “perfume” of the individual fruit. It looked as though they were greeting the fruit with the traditional head bow and hands in apposition in front of the face that the greeting, sawadi kah, implied. Durian is thought to be an aphrodisiac. A saying in Behasa, the native language of Malaysia and Indonesia, suggests that when ripe durians drop down sarongs rise up.
In my hands the fruit was only rough-skinned and barbed. My hands had been forewarned by my nose, and were incapable of conjuring up a loving caress. Yao sniffed a few dozen durians – no mean feat – and selected two to bring home with us to her mother’s house. I insisted on paying since I had been invited to dinner. They cost as much as my inexpensive hotel room.
Airplanes, long distance buses, trains, and hotels share a prohibition on ripe durian because of the strength and tenacity of its fetid aroma.
“My mother will be so pleased. She asked me to look for some extra special durian during your visit. It is a tradition in our country to honor revered guests with this wonderful delicacy. She was a little hesitant that you might not like it, but I assured her that you eat all kinds of Thai foods in markets here and in restaurants back in San Francisco. You are not squeamish like some Americans. You’ll see. It is delicious, even if it does smell spoiled.” Yao had tied the first knot in the noose.
Her mother accepted them with a very uncharacteristic giggle of delight, hidden behind her hand. Then, standing on tiptoes, she gave me an even more uncharacteristic hug and kiss on the cheek, as she tied the second knot in the noose.
She led me by the arm to the living room and sat me down between her husband and son, Arun, in a silk cushioned, black lacquered, ornately carved chair. In moments I had a cold beer in my hand, rice chips and molten-spiced dip at my side. Arun sealed my fate, and tied the final knot.
“You are so thoughtful to bring fine durian to my mother’s table. It is as a bridge into our family, telling us that you are a kindred spirit, unlike some of the Americans Yao has brought home to visit in the past.” His sentiment was genuine and offered in kindness. He could not have known that it had already begun to constrict my throat.
We took our seats along the narrow table. I was assigned a space in the middle of a long side, flanked by Yao and her sister, and across from her niece and nephew who never turned their smiles away from me.
Dinner began with a velvety smooth fish puree wrapped in banana leaf. Next came boned stuffed chicken (angel’s) wings, roasted golden brown; filled with yam noodles, ground shrimp, pork and aromatic herbs. Pad Thai, topped with fresh cilantro, green basil leaves, omelet strips, shrimp, roasted pork and ground peanuts, followed. A bowl of sticky rice with two dipping sauces and prawns in green curry gravy filled the last remaining spaces on the table.
Reckoning came at dessert. Under the durian’s yellow-green skin was a thick white rind. Inside it were sections containing large black seeds surrounded by golf balls of the acrid yellow flesh. It was served as if it were custard. The entire family, Yao’s parents, two siblings, sister-in-law, niece and nephew, riveted their beaming eyes on me, proud to honor my presence with an overly large portion of the best ripe durian in the land. There was no escape.
I clenched my left fist in my lap until my fingernails burrowed into the flesh of my palm, and locked my facial muscles in a rigid smile to overcome any other response. On a large spoon that trembled imperceptibly, I hastened the silky custard past my lips and down my throat, shortening the duration of contact with my tongue’s taste buds as much as possible. It worked, but barely. I was nauseated for only a moment. To my relief, the durian had a flavor different from its stench. It tasted like mushroom pâté and Juicy Fruit gum, eaten in a dumpster filled with rotting potatoes. My facial muscles ceased their throbbing and began to relax. The heat of my facial flush began to cool. I had survived this confrontation with a simple piece of fruit without humiliating my hosts or myself. No, I hadn’t won. My near defeat had escaped detection.
“Kaup koon mak kap”, thank you very much, I blurted aloud. My hosts mumbled pleased you-are-welcomes, not knowing that my thanks were actually intended for the deity of intestinal fortitude. That they were audible was purely an accident of the moment.
Thirty years ago, a few years before my durian encounter, this anonymously written limerick appeared in the magazine Horticulture:
The durian – neither Wallace nor Darwin agreed on it.
Darwin said: “May your worst enemies be forced to feed on it.”
Wallace cried, “It’s delicious.”
Darwin replied, “I’m suspicious
For the flavor is scented like papaya fermented,
After a fruit-eating bat has pee’d on it.”
Lenny Karpman once was a type A American workaholic, cardiologist, political activist, chef and member of a host of boards and commissions. Now he is a relaxed Costa Rican gardener, golfer, bird watcher and surrogate father to a bevy of dogs, cats, chickens, ducks, koi and parrots. He shares his paradise with his yogi wife Joan. They travel often and play together daily. He writes food and travel stories for fun, including six books, many essays in anthologies and nearly 200 publications.
- How to Choose a Durian
- Vagabond Tales: Please check your durian at the door
- The Brazilian Grape Tree that Fruits on its Trunk
- Portuguese Delights: Arbutus or “Tree Strawberry” Cream
- Spontaneous Cuisine: John Dory, Italian Green Wild Asparagus and Blood Orange Sauce