Durian, Durian


Last month, after a long discussion with his father, my friend gave up on his latest business idea: Importing mangosteens into America. The plan was to petition the government, build a greenhouse, and then get rich off of this rare South Asian fruit, which apparently tastes like ice cream and causes perfectly normal people to burst into tears. R.W. Apple wrote in The New York Times: “I can no more describe mangosteens than explain why I love my wife and children.”

Recently, I went to Chinatown to find this dark, purple treat, but the few people who had heard of it told me to stop looking. Mangosteen—widely considered the “queen of all fruit”—carries too many flies to be permitted in the U.S. Because durian, the so-called “king,” was hanging from nearly every fruit stand on East Broadway, I bought one instead. It was $8 and about the size of my head—plus spikes. While mangosteens are said to chill the body, durians are 900-calories a piece and so creamy that last year when a man in Thailand ate four in a row, he passed out and died. The Thai Ministry of Public Health then issued a warning against excessive durian consumption.

I brought the durian to the Gowanus Yacht Club, where my friends were meeting to eat hot dogs. Even from inside a plastic bag, and under the table, it gave off a sweet, fermented smell, like a banana-flavored gas leak. Public officials in Singapore and Thailand have banned durian from hotel rooms, vans, buses, trains, and department stores. In Vietnam, people use the fruit (which translates into English as “private sorrow”) to repel mosquitoes.

We cracked open the skin with a steak knife. Inside there were five red seeds, surrounded by doughy goo. I thought it resembled a dead chicken, but my friends had other ideas: “porcelain fetus,” “alien baby,” “dinosaur egg,” “anonymous shit on sidewalk.” The pulp tasted burnt, warm and sweet, like onion custard, and got more syrupy the closer it was to the seeds. One friend loved it: “Durian is sublime,” she wrote me in an email later that night, “I want to inflict it on people.”

In Southeast Asia, durian is used in many products, including pastes, puffs, dumplings, puddings, and chips. Here I could only find a few durian foods, and most of them were desserts: the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory, Chaa Chaa, and Spice Market all sell Durian ice cream, and the Vietnamese sandwich shop, Banh Mi So, sells Durian popsicles, which taste exactly as they should: creamy and a little bit rotten. I had one out of a packet of five, and then slipped the other four back into the store’s freezer.

I heard rumors about mangosteen sorbets and jams, but every place I tried had discontinued their product. When I asked customer service at Whole Foods, a shopper overheard me and interrupted to say my search was pointless. Then she told me her life story as it pertains to mangosteens. She had one in Paris. It was “so exotic!” But she didn’t approve of wandering around looking for it “like art.” “Maybe it’s worth it,” she said. “But with some people, it’s like ‘Come on—can we stop already?’”