by Shayla Nguyen
The durian. This spiky, watermelon-sized fruit is one of my all time favorite fruits, but admittedly, it is intimidating upon first encounter. Typically it’s not the appearance that sends people running, but rather the durian’s pungent smell. Many people have likened the smell to rotting meat, vomit, or perhaps a ghastly combination of both. In fact, the smell is considered so horrendous that the durian is deemed the world’s smelliest fruit. The durian is banned from numerous international airports and has caused evacuations from public spaces like college campuses, airplanes, and malls because of its odor!
Personally, I think that durians get a bad rep. Growing up in a Vietnamese household, I know durian as trái sầu riêng and I absolutely love it! It is distinctly sweet like a dessert and despite its tough exterior, durian is oh-so-soft in texture. As a child, it was my favorite fruit simply because of how much it reminded me of custard. I remember eating it on its own or in the form of durian flavored wafers and mooncakes. As for the smell? If you ask me, I would respond with “what smell?” Neither I nor my other family members can detect any distinguishable smell from durian, let alone one so intense that it causes people to gag!. This is why it came as such a shock when I learned that many, many people were repelled by its scent.
This overwhelming opposition to durians has compelled me to showcase a different side of durian. Durians are the fruits of trees within the genus Durio and the family Malvaceae. (The Malvaceae family also includes other delicious plants like okra and cacao — the plant that gives us chocolate!) Durian grows in the wild in Southeast Asia and it is eaten by orangutans, rhinos and elephants.
One of durian’s striking features is its smell, which is actually the most interesting part of the fruit! Researchers at Dune-NUS Medical School recently discovered that durians have such a complex and strong smell because it has multiple copies of a gene that produces smelly, sulfuric compounds. By having more scent-producing gene copies available, durians can amplify their odor production. Scientists at the German Research Center for Food Chemistry have so far identified sixteen different chemical compounds that contribute to the durian’s scent profile. Some of these compounds create a sweet smell that is more typical of other fruits. Other compounds, especially the sulfuric ones, lead to durian’s ill-perceived smells. As it turns out, those who have spent a greater amount of time around durians are able to discern more of the sweet smelling compounds. This is how some people (myself included) are not repelled by the odor of durians!
My family and I are not alone in our love of durian. It is actually a very popular ingredient in many Asian cuisines. Durian’s sweet taste lends itself perfectly to desserts and it is common to find durian flavored commodities like ice cream and milkshakes in many Asian countries. If you enter any oriental food market, you are also bound to find durian cookies and cakes scattered throughout the sweets aisle. Contrary to its depiction as the “world’s smelliest”, durian is considered by many people to be the “king of fruits”.
Durians may be divisive, but if you haven’t already tried one, I encourage you to try durian and form your own opinion! As some have pointed out, the more time you get to spend with durians, the easier it is to get past the stinky, spiky exterior to find a soft and sweet interior. Durians are such a special fruit that no matter whether you consider it to be the world’s smelliest or the king of fruits, you will surely gain a memorable experience out of it.
Shayla is a 21 year old student at the University of Pittsburgh with a major in Biological Sciences. She loves gardening, taking care of house plants, and sharing tidbits about Vietnamese culture