Thursday, 5 November 2015

De' Conti on the Durian

        Yesterday I said that Niccolo de' Conti was perhaps the first European to write about the durian (Durio sp.), a fruit native to the Malay Archipelago and known internationally for its strong odour. It's also a little less famous for its hard outer rind, which is covered in tough spines.

        As with most of these things, de' Conti's account of the durian is brief but accurate.
Fructum uiridem habent nomine durianum, magnitudine cucumeris, in quo sunt quinque ueluti mala arancia oblonga, uarii saporis, instar butiri coagulati. (lines 140-143)
       'They have a green fruit the size of a watermelon called a durian, in which there are five oblong fruits the size of a sweet orange, [with a] varied flavour, resembling coagulated butter.'
Durio zibethinus, the common kind of durian. Drawn by Hoola van Nooten, c. 1863, apparently.
        This description clearly accords with the durian, and it's good to know that the word 'durian' ('thorny one' in Malay) has been applied to the fruit from at least the fifteenth century. In light of that, it is a bit odd that the spines aren't mentioned. I would also say that 'varied flavour' is an understatement: durians have a very odd assortment of flavours, and it's conventional to quote Alfred Russel Wallace on this point:
This pulp [de' Conti's oblong orange-sized fruits] is the eatable part, and its consistency and flavour are indescribable. A rich butter-like custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but intermingled with it come wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, brown sherry, and other incongruities. Then there is a rich glutinous smoothness to the pulp which nothing else possesses, but which adds to its delicacy. It is neither acid, nor sweet, nor juicy, yet one feels the want of none of these qualities, for it is perfect as it is. It produces no nausea or bad effect and the more you eat the less you feel inclined to stop. In fact to eat durians is a new sensation, worth a voyage to the East to experience.
        There's actually much more to Wallace's description - he devotes nearly two pages of The Malay Archipelago to the fruit and also wrote about it in a letter to a friend - but that part corresponds best to what de' Conti was saying.

        I have to say, I don't particularly like durian. I don't really dislike it, but I can't say it's my favourite or claim it as a Malayo-phile badge of honour. On the other hand, I've never had it, as Wallace did, straight from the tree - I've only ever had it in restaurants and at markets. Perhaps the pungent scent of old socks has yet to appear when the fruit has just fallen. I suppose it also depends on which species or varietal of durian you're eating.
Two clearly distinguishable varieties of durian. h/t Yun Huang Yong.
        When it comes to fruits from that part of the world, I like jackfruit (nangka), which is especially good when cooked, and rambutan ('the hairy one'). I'm a big fan of pomelo, which I first tried in Taiwan during the mid-autumn festival in 2007. I was really happy to see that you can buy them in British supermarkets (well, some British supermarkets).

       And perhaps I'm a little strange, but I don't like sweet dessert bananas very much. I can eat them without nausea, but they just feel wrong to me: my tasting-brain tells me bananas should have a savoury flavour. That's okay, because some of them do.


  1. He is missing the most important part of the durian in his description: its dreadful smell!

    I had a friend from Cambodia who explained the durian to me on these terms: "It tastes like heaven and smells like hell."

    Several months later I had the chance to try my first durian with him present. We filmed the occasion. One spoonful in I yelled "Elder Ban, this fruit smells like hell and tastes like it too!"

    There are no foods I dislike more than a durian.

    1. Yeah, it's really surprising that it's not mentioned. It's clearly the most prominent characteristic of the fruit. Perhaps food was just generally more pungent than we're used to these days.

      I think the worst food smell overall is stinky tofu - it definitely beats durian in the stink department. But it also tastes way better than durian (to me, at least).


You can post anonymously if you really want to, but I would appreciate it if you could provide some means of identifying who you are, if only for the purpose of knowing who has written what.