Meet the Durian: A Tropical Fruit You'll Love or Hate

Despite being banned in some hotels and subways, lovers of this unusual fruit go to great lengths for a taste.

A sliced durian sitting on a wood surface.
The polarizing durian is heralded by its fans as 'the king of fruits.'.

worradirek / Shutterstock

The spiky, alien-looking durian is famous for its smell. The scent of this fruit, which can be larger than a football when mature, has earned comparisons to over-ripe onions, potent cheese, and gym socks. In Singapore, a country where it is widely available, the durian's smell is strong enough to get it banned from some businesses, commercial buildings, and public transport.

Needless to say, not everyone is a fan. Even celebrity foodie Andrew Zimmern, known for trying so-called "bizarre foods" from all around the world, dislikes durian. For some, however, durians are the ideal food.

The King of Fruits

Durian carries the nickname "the king of fruits" in some circles, and quality samples can fetch a higher price than almost any other fruit. In his travelogue "Following the Equator," Mark Twain wrote about witnessing the fascination with "dorian" while traveling in Southeast Asia:

"We found many who had eaten the dorian, and they all spoke of it with a sort of rapture. They said that if you could hold your nose until the fruit was in your mouth a sacred joy would suffuse you from head to foot that would make you oblivious to the smell of the rind, but that if your grip slipped and you caught the smell of the rind before the fruit was in your mouth, you would faint."

Even today, the enthusiasm for the fruit crosses borders. Durian farmers in Malaysia have experienced a boom in recent years because of the high demand for their crops in China. At a recent Malaysian food festival in New York City, the entire supply of 500 durians sold out within a few hours. So, as in Twain's day, some people still seem to experience a kind of "rapture" from eating this tropical product.

Game of Thorns

Durian is popular in Singapore despite being banned in some places. Trong Nguyen/Shutterstock

The oddity of durian goes beyond its pungent scent. The spiky husk is as sharp as it looks. The Malay word "duri," from which the name durian is derived, means thorn. When cutting the fruit, some vendors wear heavy work gloves. The interior, meanwhile, features pockets of soft, yellow fruit. Durian ranges from an avocado-like to a custard-like consistency. Each section has at least one pit in the middle.

Durian grows in the tropics (usually at altitude), but harvesting techniques vary depending on the preferences of local enthusiasts. In Thailand, for example, people prefer durian when it is mid-ripe. Farmers harvest the fruit by cutting it off the trees before it achieves full ripeness. It then continues to ripen on the way to market and reaches the ideal age just in time to be consumed.

In Malaysia and elsewhere in insular Southeast Asia, farmers allow the fruits to fully ripen on the tree. When it reaches maturity, a durian simply falls to the ground. Farmers place nets under the trees to catch each fruit and protect it from damage. Since the spiky-husked projectiles fall from height, and the average durian weighs 3.3 pounds (1.5 kilograms), the nets presumably also protect anyone walking under the trees when the fruit falls.

Different Forms of Durian

Durian ban
You may get a hefty fine for carrying durian into the wrong place. atiger/Shutterstock

Purists may tell you durian must be consumed only when fresh. Following this advice proves a bit difficult for people in most of North America. The fruit does not have a long shelf life and grows best in the tropics. Most durians imported to the U.S. (roughly 2,000 metric tons per year) are pre-frozen. The fruit is available in Asian grocery stores but rarely finds its way into mainstream supermarkets.

Luckily for durian lovers, and anyone else who is curious, the fruit travels better in other forms. Freeze-dried durian is quite popular; it lacks the same pungency and is crunchy instead of soft. These traits make the dried version a little less intimidating for novices. Durian is also an ingredient. You might find durian ice cream and durian popsicles in Asian markets in the U.S., and the distinct flavor graces candies, cookies, and cakes, where it sometimes serves as a filling along with bean paste.

Perhaps the best option is to order a durian shake from an Asian restaurant or coffee shop. These beverages are often mixed with milk or bean paste and contain extra sweeteners. You might even grab some frozen durian from a market yourself and attempt to use it for baking a cake.

Going to the Source

durians growing from a tree in Thailand

Unfortunately, to try fresh durian, you need to go to the source. Most species grow best when they are within 15 degrees latitude of the equator. Thailand, one of the world's most prolific producers, has productive farms as far as 18 degrees north latitude. Farmers in Hawaii grow durian as far north as 22 degrees, but this still lies within the tropics.

Where is the best place to see whether you fall into the "love durian" or "hate durian" category? Travelers headed to Malaysia and Thailand have the best chance of encountering a quality durian. Farmers in the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea, and Myanmar also grow the fruit. Australia has a fledgling durian industry, though most of the trees, imported from Indonesia and Malaysia, produce fruit for the domestic market rather than export.