I knew, of course. You could say I smelled it a mile away.
As soon as I saw the headline “What are the World’s Smelliest Foods?” on the MSN homepage this morning, I knew durian would make that list. Because it reeks.
I found this out the hard way, in the produce section of my local Cold Storage supermarket in Singapore. The nauseating noseful of funkiness I caught before even entering the store made me think something had died, or perhaps a sewage pipe had burst. But no, it was just the durian, doing what durian does best: stinking the joint out.
Travel writer Richard Sterling once wrote that the durian’s distinctive bouquet “is best described as pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock.” Although I’ve tried, I can’t improve on that description. Except to point out that the sock must belong to an extreme sports enthusiast with an aversion to soap and water, the onions must be rotting, and the pig must have eaten the socks and onions (washed down with the turpentine) before doing his business.
I love the story of my family’s first taste of durian so much, I twisted Robin Pascoe’s arm until she agreed to post it on her Expat Expert blog. Then I sent the link to Valerie, the Singaporean receptionist at my dentist’s office, who’s always protesting that durian’s skunky reputation is undeserved. “It smells delicious,” she insists on insisting. I tell her I think she’s been dipping into the nitrous oxide when no-one’s looking.
I recently found durians in a Chinese grocery store here in Canada. After travelling halfway around the world, they were a pale imitation of the “king of fruits” I’d known in Southeast Asia. They looked sallow and listless, which, coincidentally, is exactly how I always looked after flying from Singapore to Toronto. They even gave off the same scent I did: that vaguely sour, unwashed odour that comes from spending more than 20 hours crammed into a plane with other sweaty people.
Standing there in the supermarket, I’m not sure what disturbed me more: the fact that the mighty durian had lost its aroma mojo, or the realization that I sometimes smelled worse than an entry on the “World’s Smelliest Foods” list.
I considered buying some durian for old time’s sake, but I just didn’t have the heart. Without that gut-ripping stench, what’s the point?
If you’re interested in learning more about this iconic fruit, Wikipedia has an excellent page covering all things durian. And if you have a story of your own to tell about a nasty (or perhaps just misunderstood) food you’ve encountered on your travels, click comments below and tell us all about it.
[Edited to add: When Robin Pascoe retired and shut down her blog, my durian story was left without a home. It later found refuge in Forced to Fly 2, an anthology of humour written by expats.]