Published July 9, 2008 in The Improper Bostonian.
The Magic Fruit
Adventures in durian tasting
Because I either have adventurous tastes or watch too much Travel Channel, durian has always intrigued me. It’s known as the “King of Fruits,” probably for its resemblance to a spiked bowling ball. (Had Isaac Newton been sitting under a durian tree, we’d still be living in a world without the concept of gravity.)
There’s also the stench, which has gotten durian banned from hotels and public transport all over Southeast Asia. On an episode of Bizarre Foods, Andrew Zimmern ate a still-beating heart and a stir-fried bat, but he couldn’t choke down some fetid durian. The novelist Anthony Burgess wrote that durian consumption is “like eating sweet raspberry blancmange in the lavatory.” Dessert and scatological humor? Sounds delicious.
With that in mind, I decided to find the best durian shake in Boston—one that encapsulates the horrors durian wages upon the wimpy Western palate, but in a cutesier form. Needing to discover what durian actually tastes like, I bought frozen segments at a Super 88. Back at the office, even through the plastic casing and shrink-wrap, the thawing flesh emitted a distinct funk. Said one office mate, “I’m going to start farting in here to take away the smell.” After being cursed for merely pretending to open the packaging, I stayed late with the only coworker brave enough to eat it with me.
She described the flavor as “a cross between a lychee and a sweet onion.” That’s fairly accurate, and actually sounds somewhat tasty, but it doesn’t begin to describe the impact of that flesh first hitting my virgin taste buds. My synapses fired in alternating bouts—my tongue telling my brain and nose, “It’s not so bad,” and my esophagus shouting back, “Screw you guys, I’m not swallowing.” Then there was the smell, a bouquet we broke down as cheese, fecal matter and natural gas. The reek of Nstar was so strong, it prompted a colleague to leap from her office 30 feet down the hall and shout, “Do you guys smell gas? I’ve gotta get out of here!”
Enlightened and armed with a list of seven durian-dishing venues, I set off for Chinatown. My first stop was Penang, where $4 got what amounted to a durian icy. “You can put the sugar, but it’s sweet already,” the waiter advised. Walking out, I realized that the best thing about durian shakes is the lid, which caps the funk like a manhole cover. The blend had a milky, rotten banana flavor, and when it came through the straw icy, it wasn’t half bad. The occasional warmed patches, however, were like pulls from a colostomy bag.
At Saigon Sandwich, a durian shake ($3) included tapioca bubbles, condensed milk “and sugar, don’t forget the sugar,” the counterwoman said. Words to live by, should you take this journey yourself. Thanks to the bubbles, there was a wider straw that fired durian slush like a waste pipe, but the sweetener took the edge off. It was like spoiled milk after a bowl of Frosted Flakes.
Fear struck my heart when I ordered a second bubble shake from Xinh Xinh ($3.70) and smelled the fruit 20 feet from the blender. Ignoring the muffled weeping of my stomach, I forged ahead to find the best durian iteration yet. Fresh and pungent, all the shock value was there, but given the Dunkin Donuts treatment, there was enough sugar and half-and-half to ease the finish. This one’s a great rookie introduction to durian, and a friend may even take a second sip before wondering why the hang out with you.
For the actual durian enthusiast, there’s Pho Soa. Their shake ($2.75) was strong and, being extra thick, allowed for strict portion control, so I took four delicate sips before chucking it. I was done, palate-fatigued, milkshake-sick and about to barf all over Chinatown. I had three places left, but I’d tackled the stink head-on and ingested enough durian to choke a flock of fruit bats. Eat it, Zimmern.