Friday, July 18, 2008

Intoxicating Durian: The Majestic Fruit That Kills

(July, 2008 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia) -- Durian is the King of Fruits. This is the football sized “spike” fruit of Asia, found in markets from Bangkok to Jakarta. Its bouquet is so powerful the fruit is banned from airlines and hotels in Singapore and KL. It was used as an obstacle on the TV show “Fear Factor” – the smell scared away the participants.

Ah, but the taste. If you get past the smell, you’ve got it licked.
The first time I tried it in 1993 I wasn’t so sure. We had met for happy hour at the Raffles Hotel Long Bar in Singapore, and after downing a yard of beer, I was taken to the nearby “hawker stall” for delicacies of sting ray and the fruit of fruits.
“Don’t eat Durian after drinking beer,” Ricky warned.
“I can’t take too much,” said Angeline, a Singaporean. “It’s too ‘heat-y’,” that is, it caused her body temperature to rise. After eating it, she would need to eat something “cool” – like watermelon-- to keep her system in balance.

We walked by the stalls inspecting the spiky fruit, inserting a nose here and there into the cracks, as if discerning a fine wine, to find one perfectly ripe. I did my duty as the honored guest taking a few bites, the last one with some difficulty. That was enough. The next day when we met to discuss strategies for increasing sales of desktop projectors in the region, I was moving a little slow. Was it the tail of the sting ray or the beast of fruits?

That evening, the talk turned to Durian. Ashok recalled driving up to Malaysia and coming to a market where the fruit was on sale. He loaded up on it, stuffing the trunk of his Mercedes. To this day, the smell lingers. Then, they told me how it is forbidden to bring into hotels (if it gets into the ventilation system, the hotel might need to be evacuated, and the odor might linger for days, if not years). It seems that not everyone in Singapore appreciates Durian. (Well, even half the population of Japan dislikes “natoe” – the “rotten” soybean dish, which is really good for you and prevents blood clots.) Better informed about this fruit, I became intrigued and told myself that I’d give it another try, someday. I soon had my chance the next week at a market in Malaysia (the country reputed to have the best Durian – at least according to Malaysians) – when I suggested to my host, “Let’s eat Durian!” He was surprised to hear that from a Westerner and undoubtedly pleased. He got some of the fruit, warned me not to drink beer with it, and I dove right in. This time, there was no turning back. I had become a Durian addict.

“The Wild West” are three words I use to describe Indonesia in the 1990s. Here’s one reason why. After dinner one evening, I suggested to my hosts, “ Let’s get some Durian. They thought that was a grand idea. We gorged ourselves, but couldn’t finish it all. (The taste is very rich, and a little goes a long way.) Too expensive, and too good to throw out, they offered me a doggie bag to take back to the hotel. “I can’t take this into the hotel,” I protested. “It’s banned. They’ll knock on the door, and throw me out of the hotel .”
“You’re correct,” Julius said, in that wild-west way of talking he had. “They will come knocking on your door, and they will tell you, ‘Please, give me some of your Durian!’” he concluded with a laugh and his Cheshire cat’s mischievous smile. He insisted all Indonesians love durian. Encouraged by my hosts, I brought the doggie-bag back to my room in the Hotel Intercontinental and put it in the refrigerator. I had a bite the following day, and left the reminder in the fridge when I checked out. (I can only surmise what was done with that fridge.) I imagined the ultimate pick up line had I been single: “Would you like to come up to my room and eat some Durian?” Now who could have refused that?

In later years, I’ve had my fun with Durian, introducing it to friends and family. “What’s this shit?” asked my Oklahoma cousin when I purchased some at a local Vietnamese market in OK City. When my friend Suki – who has spent a lot of time in India -- invited us and a group of his friends to his home in San Diego for a tandori chicken cookout a few years back, I brought Durian for desert. He’s still my friend – we play golf together -- but I wonder why he hasn’t invited us back for dinner? I’ve pondered bringing it into the office April Fool’s Day, but hesitate when remembering the reaction that ensued when one of the Asian gals in the office cooked some “tsurume” in the microwave. The fumes rose to the vent and reached me at the other end of the building triggering fond memories of eating the dried squid —heated by a match or butane lighter – with beer in our dormitory in Japan. I decided to join the feast, but couldn’t reach the kitchen because of the exodus of staff gagging at the smell, which they found disgusting. Since something as innocuous as dried squid has been banned from our company, what would happen if I gave Durian to my boss? (Since I like my job, we’ll hold this idea until I close my next million dollar deal.)

Fast forward to July, 2008 … it’s my birthday week and I’m in Malaysia and I’ve decided to treat myself to a present. Something I haven’t experienced in years and sorely miss. As someone once said, what happens in Malaysia stays there. I’m going to find the best one money can buy. But before that, a round of golf.
It’s a par 5-hole, and I’m in a bit of rough on the right hand side after my drive. Not a problem. I pull out a 5-wood, and hit it perfectly. The ball is sailing down the course but inexplicably drifts into a forest. I walk among the trees I don’t recognize but notice the sword of Damocles above my head: A durian fruit. Durian is so powerful, its magnetic force has pulled my ball into the woods. Says my friend Mohamed, “It’s the curse of the Durian tree.” I look for a fallen Durian, find one, pick it up, and to my amazement, the ball is not inside . “Major,” I call out – he was an officer in the army -- after finding my ball some 250 yards from where I last struck it, “Let’s crack open one of these and eat it.”
“You like Durian?!” he asked in disbelief. “The best Durian is in Malaysia. You’re lucky. It’s the season. You need to try D24. It’s the best,” and he proceeds to tell me about all the varieties of Durian. After the golf game, we pass by a fruit stand. Stepping out of the car, I’m struck by the pungent fragrance which scared off the challengers in “Fear Factor”. As we sniff different fruits deciding which one to purchase, it all just smells delicious.
Durian is the king of fruits,” Mohamed says.
“What’s the queen of fruits?”
“I don’t know.”
Normally, two small wedges of the fruit are enough for me – it really is filling. But Mohamed has bought us each our own fruit the size of a football. The first one called a “fox” Durian – it’s delicious, and I understand why foxes love it. Next, we open up a D24, which I find even sweeter. I’m so full, that I won’t need dinner. Warns Mohamed, “Don’t go out and drink any beer tonight.”
“What would happen?”
“The Durian causes gasses to mass in your stomach, and when it mixes with beer, it will make you sick. I knew a guy who drank beer with Durian – he ended up in the hospital.” He also told me that people with heart conditions and diabetes will get sick – and could die-- if they eat it.
We’re giddy now, high on Durian, telling jokes about the consequences of burping after eating Durian. This is fifth grade humor, and we’re in an uproar. “Craig, the Durian has made you drunk!” cries Nadira, our hostess.
“There’s death to drug traffickers in Malaysia,” I recall. “Why isn’t this banned?” Who needs alcohol in this country? Durian is intoxicating.
Nadira , if I had eaten Durian before going into the club last night, would all of the ladies have come up to me to lick my lips?”
“I’m sure, but just don’t burp on them or they will run away. The smell of Durian from your stomach mixed with ‘nasi lemok’ is horrible,” she giggles.
We approach a roadblock on the highway back to KL. Police are on the lookout for trouble makers, as there are planned demonstrations against the government. I roll down my window, as if to burp in the officer’s face, which puts us in stitches.
We’re on the road again and it seems that Mohamed just can’t avoid the pot holes, which is setting my stomach ajar, and I’m concerned about a very voluminous, liquid “burp” with horrible consequences that could strip the paint off of his Acura. We each roll down our window – with more giggles – at the next bump in the road.
I get back to the hotel past 10pm and there is a message from earlier in the day. “Craig, it’s Iris. Give me call, and I’ll take you to the Durian market.” Iris is another one of our resellers in Malaysia, of Chinese descent. She looks like the actress Michele Yeoh and sells like a fireball. It’s too late to call her, so I send her an e-mail, proudly stating that I am now an aficionado who has sampled D24, the king of the kings.
She writes back: “Yep, that is a good grade of durian. Great to hear that you had finally tasted the Malaysian grade Durians. Well, my choice is not D-24 (too commercialize), I prefer the unknown grade. Besides D-24, there is XO, D2, D101, Red Shell, etc. But to get a good taste pls. visit Chinese Durian sellers….”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm tempted to have you bring a D24 back with you and present it to the folks at ITT on your Aug. 8th visit but I know better! - shannon