The King of All Fruit.
Most American publications I have seen use the phrase "King of All Fruit" are referring to the apple. I might be inclined to argue this, but regardless the extent of the Apple Kingdom does not reach to Malaysia, where the fruits have an altogether different king. One which posesses an ungodly stench and occasionally attacks bystanders.
I hadn't intended to post at all tonight, but while Googling about trying to find a website I'd long since forgotten, I came across an amusing site: Durian OnLine (DOL). (I also discovered that Sue, proprietor of Snackish and one of my earliest readers, posted a link to this site in her own durian post a month ago. I'm clearly falling down on the job here, not even noticing a fruit post over there. My deepest apologies, Sue.)
It's easy to think that the author of Durian OnLine is insane. He may well be. But that is how durians seem to make people. This isn't the sort of fruit where people say "Oh, yeah, durians. They're okay." No, any one who has actually encountered a durian has pretty strong feelings on it, one way or the other. Frankly, most of the opinions I have heard on it have been of the "gas leak mixed with poo" (Sue) or "complete ass" (guy I met at market) variety, but the people who like durians really like durians. People plan vacations around them, and there are literally people who have quit their jobs and sold all their belongings so they can sit all day and eat durian. You'd think it would get old but apparently it doesn't.
Few if any other fruits make such an impression with their odor. Otis Barrett, a plant explorer, once described it as combining cheese, decayed onion and turpentine, or "garlic, Limburger cheese and some spicy sort of resin". (He appears to be mostly remembered for this quote nowadays, although he made several other notable contributions to plant exploration). He also said that once a bit of the pulp was eaten "the odor is scarcely noticed", which sounds a bit like wishful thinking to me, but everybody who loves durian swears this is the case. A friend's boyfriend recently forgot to seal one in it's bag when stashing it in the fridge and actually ruined an entire refrigerator full of other food. Supposedly there are now scentless cultivars, but if that's the case I've never encountered one. I kind of think it might take some of the fun out of it.
If you can get over the smell (a big if), the actual taste isn't bad. I don't think I've ever heard a single fruit compared to a wider range of flavors. An American chemist working in Sumatra described it as "a concoction of ice cream, onions, spices, and bananas, all mixed together", while Richard Sexton described it by saying "It's a bit like cherimoya, for those who have tasted it - a sort of blend of pineapple, coconut, cream and apple. Except in the case of the durian, you add paint thinner and dogshit." Alfred Russel Wallace (Darwin's co-author on the theory of natural selection and all around interesting guy) described the durian as follows: "a rich custard highly flavored with almonds . . . but there are occasional wafts of flavour that call to mind cream cheese, onion-sauce, sherry wine and other incongruous dishes. Then there is a rich glutinous smoothness in the pulp which nothing else possesses, but which adds to its delicacy. It is neither acid, nor sweet, nor juicy; yet it wants none of these qualities, for it is in itself perfect. It produces no nausea or other bad effect, and the more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop." I kind of tend to think any description of a delicious fruit which ends with "it produces no nausea" is a little suspect, but the things have their fans. (For more of Wallace's thoughts on Durians, try here.)
The durian is an entertaining fruit for a number of other reasons besides the smell. There's also the fact that they are occasionally deadly. Durians weigh in at as much as 18 pounds, are covered with spikes, and have a tendency to drop from trees on folks when ripe. Imagine waking from unconsciousness, bleeding and reeking of durian. (Of course, you'd have to have been out for a stroll in a durian orchard, so the smell would be a little less unexpected). I also like the fact that they appear to be pollinated by bats (search for "durian" or scroll down). In that sense it reminds me of the Stinking Toe Tree, a fruit species I know little about besides the fact that it is pollinated by bats, reminds me of durians, and is the source of the stuff they filled my tooth with when I had a root canal.
Botanically, the durian, Durio zibethinus, is among the most ancient and primitive of fruits, though by some to be among the oldest woody plants. British botanist E.J.H. Corner published an entire, expansive "Durian Theory of Evolution", which although a bit thin at spots is really quite fascinating to read...David Quammen wrote a great article on it back in 1993.) It's a member of the Bombaceae family, which also includes baobob, balsa, malabar chestnut, and bombax, a species whose name I absolutely love). It's a native to southeast Asia, probably originating on Borneo or Sumatra, where there are 28 other native Durio species (only five are edible, however). The fruits are roughly the shape and size of footballs (maybe somewhat smaller) and covered in spikes, although sometimes you'll find them "de-spiked"...as if the spikes were the main reason people weren't buying them. The inside is divided into five compartments, each filled with the distinctive white to pinkish flesh and one or more chestnut-like seeds. The trees are large (100+ feet tall) and shaped distinctly like Christmas trees. (More on durian botany here).
Culturally, the durian is difficult at the beginning and becomes progressively easier. Propagating the species is not especially easy: seeds remain viable for a very short period of time, especially if exposed even briefly to light. A week would be impressive...even sterilized and tightly climate controlled about a month is the record. Seed propagated trees take many years to produce fruit. In the fruit's native range, seedlings may fruit in as little as seven years, but in other areas, such as India, it's not uncommon for it to take 15 to 20 years. Vegetative propagation is not much easier. Air-layering doesn't work, cuttings don't root. Cultivars are generally propagated by budding onto seedling stocks, but budded trees rarely attain the size and productivity of the best seedlings.
Although young trees require a fair amount of care to establish, mature trees receive virtually no attention at all aside from harvesting, which is conducted basically by clearing the area under the tree and waiting (preferably elsewhere) for fruit to fall. They suffer from few diseases or pests (though a handful of each are known.) Outside of it's native range, it needs to be hand-pollinated, as the local bats don't seem to do the trick. It's also highly self-incompatible, so one should plant a variety of genotypes.
Although historically rarely grown outside of southeast Asia, durians are gradually becoming more and more available in other areas, occasionally showing up in U.S. markets, where they seem to inspire the same sort of insanity they've inspired for years elsewhere. They've been successful established in Central America and the Caribbean (albeit on a small scale). I saw a stack of them in an outdoor (thankfully) market in Costa Rica, and I assume they were locally grown. The species is what is called "ultra-tropical", which means prospects for establishment in the U.S. are pretty bleak. Seedlings survived only briefly in South Florida, and fared relatively poorly in Puerto Rico (I haven't heard anything about Hawai'i, though I imagine it might be vaguely possible there.)
Frankly, I don't know how any one could resist trying a fruit which smells like a gas leak, grows on a giant Christmas tree, occasionally attacks and kills innocents, and is pollinated by bats. At least once.
Update: I'd meant to add these links, but forgot them:
Large print durian site, for those with bad eyes and noses, I guess.
Bao Sheng Durian Farm in Malaysia
Frankly, there's really no end to the durian sites out there...it's truly awe inspiring. Hit Google and read durian to your heart's content.
Update 2: I changed the photo in the sidebar...the more I looked at that photo, the more I got to think that those were jackfruit, not durians, despite the photographer's claim to the contrary. They just looked too big and lumpy. And jackfruit stink too.