I have done some horrifying things in pursuit of deliciousness. Horrifying. I've dug elbow-deep into a fresh, steaming pile of pig guts to hand-harvest intestines for sausage casing. I've toted a freezer bag of squirrel carcasses across multiple state lines, scooped smoked brain from a cow skull into my mouth and had it written into my wedding vows that creepy little jars of fermenting food "projects" would be tolerated, if not joyfully accepted.
Who'd have thought I'd be felled by a fruit?
Ohhhhh...that smell. It's the stuff of legend, but not hyperbole. Culinary adventurer and Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern has jammed down still-beating frog heart and chicken uterus, yet spat out durian on camera, calling the scent akin to "completely rotten, mushy onions."
Travel writer Richard Sterling paints the odor as "pig-s**t, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock." A frequently cited passage from a 1988 Washington Post article quotes Singaporean cook and professed durian addict Wai Ching Lee likening the experience to "eating custard in a sewer."
Describing his first encounter with the fruit in 'A Cook's Tour', No Reservations host Anthony Bourdain wrote, "It smelled like you'd buried somebody holding a big wheel of Stilton in his arms, then dug him up a few weeks later."
I am a broken, damaged person with a masochistic, food-macho streak, so this all sounded hunky dory to me. Silly, silly me.
All it took was a "Hey look, they have durian!" from a pal who'd accompanied me on a shopping trip to Brooklyn's Sunset Park neighborhood. My basket was already laden with frozen fish balls, pickled grapes, black vinegar and a clamshell container of one of my favorite snacks: a mixture of sugar, chili oil, peanuts and dried anchovies. Why not stink up the car a little more?
Here's why: everyone you hold dear will suddenly despise you. Not only will they sustain collateral olfactory damage from standing within several yards of the vile pod, once you've ingested it, you'll be afflicted with burps so pungent as to roil and rot all air in the room around you. The noxious emanation will not cease for many an hour, and by that time, your loved ones will have located alternate living quarters, possibly in another hemisphere.
I'd done my level best to shield the innocent from the effluvia of my task, waiting until my husband had left for work, then gingerly setting the fruit onto the newspaper-covered concrete of the area we optimistically refer to as "the backyard." Our sweet, battle-scarred greyhound Edward trotted out to oversee the goings-on.
"Thluck!" The tip of my knife pierced the woody, peaked outer shell more easily than I'd expected and sunk into the creamy flesh with a sudden, sickening ease. With the hull now breached, the first rank wave began to rise. Edward, sniffed, let loose a small whimper and ran inside.
I tweeted (because that's what I do), "Verdict: it smells like the fridge of every guy I dated in art school." Responses began flooding in.
"Was this the result of a dare?" asked food writer Elizabeth Bastos.
Celebrated baker, blogger and cookbook author David Lebovitz recalled, "I made a Durian Cake once and a customer sent a note back to the kitchen, 'How dare you!'"
A colleague who works from our Atlanta office noted that he'd caught wind I was exiled to Brooklyn, rather than the office for this particular mission because of, in his words, "the stank."
Stink, stank, STUNK. I pried the pod in half, and the stench punched upward, sending me reeling backward onto the concrete and back into the house to let my nose hover above a half-filled cup of black coffee while I examined the petard onto which I'd hoisted myself.
It was as if I suddenly entered a world in which only onions, meat and yeast spores grew, decayed and died, taking joy along with them. Would I be a wuss if I abandoned mission now? Yes. How much would it cost if I left all my personal possessions behind and started afresh in a new city? A lot. Back into the fray.
Wielding a metal spoon and inhaling as infrequently as I could stand, I loosened the innocuous-looking flesh from the outer husk and plopped it into a bowl. The pulp was soft, moist and wrinkled, roughly the texture of an elderly banana and the pale, sickly hue of a raw, skin-on chicken breast. I pinched off a chunk and stuck it in my mouth.
Imagine if elves came in under cover of darkness, opened a White Castle franchise in your mouth, pulled the electricity for about six weeks and then forced you to dine from the Dumpster after cleanup. The rotten meat, yeast and onions evoked by the scent had materialized, metastasized, and now held my tongue prisoner. I considered and rejected the idea of a home amputation, then poured the rest of the coffee over the poor thing while I debated which durian recipe I was going to use.
Wait...cook it? Yup. It's not as if I was ever, EVER going to attempt this particular culinary Kilimanjaro again, so I might as well climb to the top and have a good look around.
A goodly quantity of the durian consumed on the planet is in the form of frozen desserts, candies and bakery-made pastries, but shockingly enough, my extensive cookbook collection came up snake eyes (which would probably be tastier). Luckily, while the internet doesn't exactly abound with recipes, a few obsessives offered up some that seemed halfway appealing.
Instructed by duriansite.com, I gathered together the makings of a durian cake.
Pulp of one durian
While creaming together the butter and sugar in my stand mixer, I removed the hard seeds from the durian lobes, and then pureed the pulp in my food processor. Then I preheated the oven to 350°F, separated the eggs and beat them into the butter mixture.
After that, while pinching my nostrils with one hand, I used the other to pour the durian pulp into the still-whirring stand mixer, then tossed in a pinch of salt for the heck of it. I whipped the remaining egg whites into stiff peaks, folded them into the batter, spread that in a buttered baking dish and shoved the whole mess in the oven.
I've been wrong before. Heck, I'm wrong a lot. Exposing the durian to heat and allowing it exposure to innocent air molecules may be the rankest wrong I've perpetrated upon my fellow man. As I contemplated my sins, our dog walker Tony arrived (I'd forgotten to cancel) and sniffed the air with great curiosity.
"Hey there! Um, what smells so...so..."
I waited with bated, burpy breath to see what adjective he'd land on.
"...so putrid?" Good call. We shared a piece of cake when he came back from his errand. Sweet fancy Moses, was it disgusting - easily the foulest thing ever to emerge from my kitchen, and I've made pig head cheese and canned veal tongue in there.
Tony chewed contemplatively. "It's not quite as bad as I thought it would be from the smell. If you'd told me it was onion cake, I would have believed you."
He's a very polite person. He's also a 21 year old man and would likely eat just about anything you set in front of him. Tony declined the offer of a piece of cake to take home and scuttled away as quickly as he could. I took that as a sign my mission had, mercifully, come to an end and cleaned up the kitchen as best I could, with one exception: the remaining cake and pan were still too hot to handle, so I left them to cool in the oven while I escaped to the comparatively sweet-smelling New York City subway to go to dinner with friends.
This was mean of me. My husband had left a perfectly neutral-smelling home and was about to come back to a house of horrors. I slunk in, late and sheepish. "What...happened here?" he asked cautiously. "It smells like something went very wrong - like the edges of the air have been singed."
I apologized, profoundly and profusely and spent the rest of the night trying not burp durian all over my beloved. This was not, I'm sad to say, a piece of cake.
Previously - Don't fly with a durian