Banned — Durian: the delicacy that smells like death

‘Your breath will smell as if you’d been French-kissing your dead grandmother.’ — Anthony Bourdain

This is how the late chef and host of the hit show Parts Unknown, Anthony Bourdain described the smell of the world’s most infamous fruit — Durian. It has also been described as smelling like sewage, stale vomit, used surgical swabs, a bunch of dead cats, and vomit-flavoured custard, yet it remains one of South East Asia’s favourite fruits, with a growing export market to daring foodies around the world. But why?

The King of Fruit

As the above the title suggests, Durian is highly prized in South East Asia where it originates. There are about 30 species of Durian, and while it’s native to Malaysia, Indonesia and Borneo, it’s now farmed over much of Southeast Asia. It’s traditionally harvested once it’s ripened and fallen to the ground and is usually, though not exclusively eaten when the interior is soft and creamy, with a texture similar to butter cream or sour cream.

It’s used in a variety of ways, from traditional Asian medicine to both sweet and sour cooking, even being used in cheesecakes and pancakes in Malaysia, as well as in candy. At about 3kg, one Durian will set you back around $30 (~£18).

The Smell

Durian’s infamy though, is its smell. Nobody can pinpoint exactly what compound causes it to smell so bad, and numerous studies have concluded that there are many compounds of Durian that should individually smell good to us, but in combination produce one of nature’s vilest smelling fruits.

It’s famously so bad that it’s banned on most public transport across Thailand, Hong Kong and Japan, while Singapore bans it across all public transport, imposing a 500 SGD ($380) fine on anyone caught with a Durian fruit. No country bans it as a whole, but on a more local level, numerous hotels have been known to ban Durian from rooms, due to the smell’s ability to linger long after the guests leave and even after a deep clean.

A warning against Durian in Singapore / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

While nobody’s sure exactly why it smells so disgusting, one of the most common theories is that it only smells awful to us because we aren’t the intended consumers. Durian may have evolved to be appealing animals such as elephants, monkeys, tapirs and birds, all of whom are known to eat Durian from time to time, with the potency of the smell travelling far and wide announcing that the fruit is ready to be eaten.

Mythology

Despite the smell, Durian has a cult following in Southeast Asia that’s rapidly growing across the world, perhaps due in part to increased globalisation and more daring palettes in the West.

There is even mythology surrounding Durian. Traditional Southeast Asian folklore states that you shouldn’t eat Durian when drinking alcohol or you may die. This is actually supported by a 2009 study from Japan that found that Durian produces an enzyme that inhibits the liver’s ability to breakdown the alcohol, which can in some cases lead to death if enough alcohol is consumed.

Durian is of course perfectly safe to eat, being one of the few foods in the world banned due to its smell, rather than the harm it could cause to people. Durian’s infamy will no doubt continue to grow, with more and more people challenging themselves to eat the world’s smelliest fruit, our adventurous palettes guiding us forwards to newer, more exciting culinary experiences.

Food fan, writer and history nerd. Sometimes I combine the three and write about them here :)

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