When I was a kid, my dad took my brother and I to an Indian restaurant in Georgetown. We split a platter that had lots of miscellaneous chutneys on it. My brother was the first to try one of the brownish, greenish looking ones, and a look of "yuck" spread across his face. After drinking water, saying how gross it tasted, and making his disgust clear, he asked if I wanted to try it. By all human logic, I should have said, "no." Why would anyone want to try something so gross and so capable of producing such a look of displeasure? But, I had to know. I had to know, what does "that gross" taste like?
So, I did. And, it was "that gross."
I tell this story because I'm sure this type of morbid food curiosity is not uncommon. Smart people upon hearing something is gross have the good sense to walk away. Being a foodie means waving good sense and jumping in with both feet. About a year ago, I wrote about trying live squid and silkworms in Korea. Part of the driving force behind that was to know for better or worse, what food experience was I missing.
One high "ick" factor food I've been intrigued and taunted by is Durian. For a while, I've heard about this smelly fruit that has such a strong stench, it has been banned on some subways in Asia. There is even a no durian sign for places that don't allow its strong pungency to taint the air.
Food shows and travel shows love making unsuspecting average Joe's try durian. Food hosts describe the fruit and offer Joe a smell. Joe smells and pulls away in revulsion. Although this should make me not want to try durian, every time a food show host presented the big, yellow and red, spiky fruit to someone and I watched his/her expression of horror, I found that old morbid foodie curiosity piquing.
The chance to try durian never really popped up until recently. I discovered in Lincoln, NE, that several of the Vietnamese restaurants offer durian bubble tea. Knowing that access was now available, I knew the moment of facing durian was at hand.
When I went to Virginia in June, I visited my friend Kathy. She reads my blog regularly and so had read from a post that I was interested in trying durian. She said she tried it and liked it, which helped give me a little more food courage. When we went to a Thai restaurant, Kanlaya, in D.C.'s Chinatown, durian bubble tea was on the menu. With a little bit of Kathy's encouraging, I ordered one. I figured, coupled with chewy tapioca pearls, cut with sweetness, and blended up, would be a chance to wade in.
It's weird. The smell gets in your nose. Then it takes a while to build up the sweeter side of the taste to get the smell out. I had heard people describe it as sulfur like, rotten egg hints. Antony Bourdain says, "Its taste can only be described as...indescribable, something you will either love or despise. ...Your breath will smell as if you'd been French-kissing your dead grandmother." He even goes so far as to describe the act of eating durian as "sexy." To me, it is spring onions, with a hint of eggs, and a sweet not quite fruity finish. If you drink enough of it, you build up the more tasty side of the fruit. But, I never really overcame that taste of spring onions. Once I ate some food and came back, spring onions would battle for flavor dominance.
After a couple of sips, Kathy asked me if I liked it. I can't say "no," but I can't say "yes" either. That distinct confusion of something that looks like a fruit and yet doesn't produce fruit like associations makes for some palate confusion. So, if you want a bright fruit to enjoy, durian isn't it. If you want a strong tasting savory bite, durian isn't really it either. For me, it is a no man's land experience. I know what it isn't, but I don't know what it is either.