There are many hard things about living by yourself overseas…I may write a book about it someday if I can ever force myself to slow down long enough. However, this July 4th weekend highlights one of those many challenges; missing family. It’s my mother’s birthday, and my parent’s pending 50th Wedding anniversary, and my family is all back in the States celebrating it and I’m here in HCMC. My sister and brother offered to help me come back for the occasion, but for many reasons (that I don’t need to get into) I chose to stay here. She said that she understood my decision and that it was my choice, but I couldn’t whine about missing out on the family celebration. A promise is a promise…
I decided to spend my American Independence day doing adventurous Asian things. I couldn’t shoot off fireworks, so I instead decided to do the next best thing; eat durian fruit. Durian, sometimes called the King of Fruit, is a mainly found in SE Asia, This soccer ball sized fruit is normally loved or hated; loved by the locals and hated by westerners! Durian has a reputation, a stinky one. The fruit is so stinky that it’s banned from public places in Singapore. However since Vietnam really has few rules, there’s no banning here – eat it, sell it, and transport it where-ever you want! It’s durian season here so the markets have the familiar smell of durian wafting through them. It’s not a pleasant smell; I think it smells of rotten eggs, however after prolonged exposure to the once foreign small, I’ve gotten used to it and can tolerate it now.
Durian is like the superhero of fruit. Not only does durian have a protective smell forcefield, but it also has a protective armor forcefield. Durian smells so terrible that no one in their right mind would want to eat it. Secondly it has a pointy hard outer layer making it hard to even simply carry. Luckily I had help on this adventure else I never would have made it on my own! I went with my good friends Lee and Tuyet, a lovely Vietnamese/American couple who has befriended me and agreed to show me the wonderful foods of Vietnam. I will write more on them later as they are a fabulous story on their own….but I will stay durian focused for now!
View photos of the trip to the market and durian eating!
We went to the local market to pick up food for a Vietnamese feast; including durian. The market trip was great; smelly, chaotic, motorbike flooded, and sweaty…a true local Vietnamese market. Lee and Tuyet had their regular stalls that they stopped at; the vegetable lady, the shrimp lady, the fish lady, and the fruit lady. Plus, we stopped and picked up a few lotus flowers too so they could have me try the seeds…yum! God I love to explore markets and new foods; and it’s even more fantastic when you have people with you that can speak the language! Lee had me pick out a fish and I proceeded to watch in awe how quickly the woman pulled out the live fish, killed it, cleaned and scaled it. Seriously – she could win an award – check out the video:
Our last stop in the market was at the fruit stand. That’s where we bought our prickly durian. We brought our stash of food home and before we started preparing and cooking the feast, we decided to have a snack to tide us over as the process of cooking a Vietnamese meal is longer than simply throwing some instant noodles on the stove. We decided to try the durian.
Tuyet had to show me how to open the durian without getting impaled by its armor. Once I got the crack started, it pulled apart easily. Strangely I didn’t notice the repulsive smell that much; once again proving to me that over time you can get used to anything. Sure, it’s not lilacs, but it’s not a terrible smell to me any longer. Since I felt as if I had gotten past the smell issue, I thought the eating part would be a breeze – that is until we broke open the durian and exposed the fruit inside. I took one look and realized it looked like an internal organ of some kind, a yellow liver. Silence of the Lambs came to mind; fava beans anyone?. All of a sudden it didn’t look too terribly appetizing! I was once again reminded that the brain is such a powerful thing. Just seeing shape of the fruit gave me a negative reaction. Tuyet showed me how to gently get the fruit out of it’s protective armor without mushing the fruit; careful use of a spoon to scoop it out delicately. To my surprise it was then that I realized that the fruit did not have a solid consistency; instead if was delicate and mushy….kind of like really soft butter.
I tried a bite and was surprised as it wasn’t what I was expecting. The smell didn’t get me, but the consistency did. It was sort of like eating creamy frosting that had a vegetable and fruit taste at times. I saw one description of it on the internet as “French custard passed through a sewer”. That seems a little extreme, but I think you get the point. The taste seemed to change in my mouth as I ate it which I wasn’t too nuts about. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t necessarily like it either. Lee and Tuyet laughed at me as I analyzed each bite. I eventually got through the liver sized creamy frosting concoction and it did seem to get better as I ate more. Maybe my brain just eventually switched off and I just ate instead of thinking about what I was eating.
The rest of the afternoon was spent cooking up a massive meal of fresh fish with mushrooms and chilis, shrimp cooked in coconut milk, and clams in lemon grass and coconut followed by more fresh fruit for dessert. It was a Vietnamese feast! It never ceases to amaze me what can be produced out of a small, simple Vietnamese kitchen with 2 gas burners. One of my favorite things about the Vietnamese culture is cooking and food is a social process; similar to cooking food in Italy. Everyone joins in, it takes hours of preparation, and it’s more of a social gathering. As I sat on the floor and cleaned vegetables and talked to Lee and Tuyet about their lives in Vietnam, it was no different than sitting in a bar with friends drinking a cosmopolitan in NYC. The process of spending a whole morning from 7AM to 1PM shopping for, preparing, and eating food is normal here. I have to admit, it’s much better than going to Starbucks and then sitting around watching tv for the morning!
So, even though I didn’t get to spend July 4th with family, instead I was able to spend it with new friends learning and trying new things. As for my durian experience, well, all I can say is that I’m glad that I tried it. I didn’t think that I could travel throughout Asia plus live here for a year and not try it! As I ate the creamy fruit I did have to remind myself that people actually LOVE this fruit in Asia. I think I’ll reserve my love for the mango instead.
Happy 4th of July!
By Scribetrotter July 5, 2009 - 6:14 am
What a great description of easing into durian! I have tried to get past the smell but failed, and two years of living in Thailand didn’t help. Don’t know if you’ve tasted jackfruit – a vastly milder version!
By admin July 5, 2009 - 6:47 am
Yes – I’ve tried Jack fruit and didn’t like it too much. But that was part of the problem – I was expecting durian to be like jackfruit but smelly – but that wasn’t at all the case!
By Dave and Deb July 5, 2009 - 6:50 am
Excellent post. As I watched the video, I was hoping that the fish had been quite dead as she cut away with her scissors. If it was still alive, that would have been the most awful painful way to go. It sure looked beautiful on the plate though.
I agree, a morning in the market is far better than sitting inside watching tv. I forgot how loud the market is, horns, people. Vietnam is a loud place.
Congrats on trying your first Durian, you are now truly a seasoned expat living in Vietnam now.
By Lornadahl July 5, 2009 - 7:15 am
Congrats! I didn’t find it THAT smelly.
What variation did you try? When I first tried that, I learned there’s the native durian, Indonesian kob, puyat, smiling, basketball, etc.
By Lilliy July 5, 2009 - 7:48 am
I love trying new food. I give it a go at least once. But I would have probably had a very hard time trying something stinky.
The fish looks yummy.
Glad to hear that you had a nice 4th of July. 50 years of marriage wow! Congrats to your parents.
I think food all over the world is sign of celebration. You want to go to the movies lets buy pop corn. You want to get together lets have dinner. Its summer lets go have picnic and grill. Let’s have a romantic dinner. And all over the world there are always so many places to eat. I think people always celebrate with food. It’s never a full celebration unless there is food involved.
By Daniel July 5, 2009 - 8:31 am
What a cool video. “Sure, it’s not lilacs” — might be the understatement of the year. It is pretty stinky! I much prefer the aformentioned jackfruit. I recall on a flight in Malaysia a few years ago somebody started eating durian or durian sweets at one point. Stank up most of the plane.
By admin July 5, 2009 - 9:11 am
I’m surprised they didn’t do an emergency landing of the plane right then! If it were Singapore Airlines I bet they would have!
By Lynn July 5, 2009 - 11:04 am
Congrats on your Durian eating experience! Lee has tried it, but not I…I draw the line at some things…no bugs, no durian, thank you very much! Lee agrees with your evaluation of the dreaded fruit – its not the smell ultimately its the texture. I have no desire to get past that smell…there are plenty of things to eat in this world that smell WAY better than Durian!
By eileen July 5, 2009 - 6:45 pm
I hadn’t considered that it might look unappealing as well! Glad you braved it, and your meal prep sounds lovely. What a great stroke of luck to have made such great friends! I just stumbled here via @everythingtrip and I’m pretty glad I did!
By admin July 5, 2009 - 9:31 pm
Eileen – glad you found me! Stop by again! Yes, the unappealing look and texture of it really took me by surprise and reminded me how powerful our brain can be. If I had eaten it blindfolded, I probably would have been fine. But once you associate something with it – like a human liver…then it’s a lot more to overcome!
I’m really glad I did it though – my reward was the brilliant feast we had afterwards!
By Anil July 6, 2009 - 7:05 am
I remember watching an ‘extreme food’ guy on some US TV show trying durian and him having a hard time getting over the smell, which makes me curious. It’s good to try new foods, someone somewhere is eating something we all think is disgusting. It’s just a matter of taste < bad pun, sorry!
By Ba July 6, 2009 - 7:47 am
Mmm…I love durian. To me, if you like durian, the smell is considered the good smell. It can be expressed in Vietnamese as: “Trời ơi, thơm quá!” In the other hand, if you’re not a big fan of it, you’ll find the smell to be unpleasant. There are locals that hate this fruit, too, not just the westerners.
By Chris July 6, 2009 - 8:49 am
That is awesome! You did something Andrew Zimmern couldn’t do on Bizarre Foods! Great description too!
By admin July 6, 2009 - 10:25 am
@Anil – you’re right – people wonder why we eat moldy cheese! I love blue cheese!! 🙂
By admin July 6, 2009 - 10:26 am
@Chris – think they’ll give me his job?! I’d be happy to take it!
By Ba July 6, 2009 - 10:41 am
I was a little disappointed when Andrew surrendered to the durian given the fact that he ate a lot of food that were worse than durian.
By Mark H July 6, 2009 - 4:34 pm
I also struggle badly with the smell but I think the taste is divine. In Thailand, people will peel the fruit for you (in the markets) for a fee. They have the thing stripped apart in only a second or two.
By admin July 6, 2009 - 6:38 pm
@Mark – how cool – I want to see how they open it so quickly. It took me a long time to try to figure out where to hold it without impaling myself! I wonder what they charge?! I’ll look for the durian ‘strippers’ here in the Vietnamese markets now too!
By Ba July 8, 2009 - 7:44 am
@Sherry – The vendor can peel the durian for you on site if you ask them. They even put the flesh in a styrofoam box for you. Durian shell is structured in wedges. If you know where the grooves/hinges are, it won’t be too difficult to open/peel the durian. Next time when you’re at the market and are in the mood for durian, just ask the vendor to peel it for you. You will see.
By hstryk July 8, 2009 - 9:01 am
Just started reading your blog and I love it! I’m actually looking into applying to jobs in Vietnam. There’s one job in particular in HCMC and through my Googling found your site. This and the “Briefcase to Backpack” site are SO motivating me to pursue the desire I’ve had to work/live abroad for years.
By admin July 8, 2009 - 10:31 am
@hstryk – so glad you found the sites! Glad they are motivating for you. Sometimes all it takes is knowing that other people have done it and then it doens’t seem as impossible! Let me know if I can be of any help!
By jinky July 25, 2009 - 11:06 pm
durian here in Philippines comes in a lot of variety and all taste very very good…i recommend the native durian…the mother of all the varieties…eating durian here don’t need a spoon and a plate…just your hands (of course clean hands)and to take away the stinging smell from your hands just rub your hands on the durian pulp with a running water…i can eat one whole durian…yummy!!!!
By Wanderluster July 27, 2009 - 3:09 pm
I was only able to get past the smell once. But then biting into it made me gag.
By Heather August 4, 2009 - 9:34 pm
I LOVE durian .. infact when I get a wiff of it wafting thru the air I’m like the bisto kid and follow the smell to track the source . so I am one of the 14% of westeners who do like it – yum yum yum!
By Jo November 10, 2009 - 3:59 pm
You can also get Durian ‘chips’ (kinda like banana chips) at Asian grocers so maybe that can be a less intimidating introduction to this scary looking/smelling fruit for some people?
Although I had heard of the stench of Durian, when I finally did come across it on a trip to SE Asia I actually liked it! So there was no hesitation for me to taste it and I LOVE it. Luckily in Australia it’s easy enough to get durian in fresh(ish) form and as an ice-cream flavour. YUM!!!
By Emily November 11, 2009 - 5:33 am
My first week in China I pointed to what I thought was a peach colored ice cream flavor and boy was I surprised…
By Barbara at Hole in the Donut Travels November 13, 2009 - 11:04 am
OK, OK, I have to try it now. Great post!!
By annz0r December 15, 2009 - 12:43 pm
I was staying with a friend in NY and we bought a durian in one of the Chinatown markets one evening. We couldn’t bear to eat it straight after experiencing the smell (and just think, the ones in NY are frozen, which mutes the smell a bit). We ended up making durian smoothies with nutmeg and vanilla, and they were rather tasty. I didn’t even know what it was at the time, I just figured it was spiky and smelled funky, so we should try it!
I’ve also had durian chocolate pudding at a raw vegan restaurant. My friend told me it smelled like a chocolate covered onion.
Hopefully someday soon I’ll be able to enjoy it fresh! Always love reading about others’ durian experiences.
By VTDisease April 6, 2013 - 10:20 pm
I think the thing with Durian is that…well, it’s not so much HOW it smells. It’s that it has such a STRONG smell. When I was younger[6 or 7 years], I was introduced to it for the first time–and I have always thought it smelled sweet and that it tasted sweet too. Durian is the whole reason I love custardy things like eclairs. According to my dad, he had to get use to it, but it doesn’t necessarily smell ‘sweet’ to him. My mother had less trouble with it, but I never had issue with it at all. So there could also be something to do with the person, or that they have different ethnic palettes[there are some people in Vietnam who hate Durian all the way through].
By Lily April 3, 2016 - 7:23 pm
Your article made me laugh out loud. You were so good!
It’s a shame that people find durian offensive both in taste and smell. For those of us who can appreciate and enjoy it, it is the delicious texture and the beautiful aroma that make durian the King of the fruits.
Sure it is an acquired taste. So if you are open to try new things, you will soon find that you are blessed to be able to appreciate and enjoy this delicacy. Just like bitter melon, children and young Vietnamese don’t usually like the bitter taste but as they grow up, they love eating it. Bitten melon is not only a delicacy in Vietnamese cuisine but also a therapeutic herb that is very good for the heart.
One man’s food is another man’s poison! Let’s be open and try new things.
By Sherry April 5, 2016 - 11:18 am
Ha! I still haven’t acquired a taste for bitter melon!