Durian is one of those things that you either love or hate. Its smell is astoundingly potent and deterrent enough to keep most people from going near it. In fact, it has affectionately been compared to rotten onions, raw sewage, and smelly gym socks, and even earned itself a ban from Singapore’s mass transit system. Emanating somewhere beneath its spiky, thick rind is the source to its pungent smell, and scientists have found it.
According to a recent study published in academic journal Nature Genetics, durian gets its distinctive smell from a group of genes that are responsible for creating its sulfuric, onion-esque aroma.
The research team mapped the genome of the Durio zibenthinus tree, the plant that bears the Southeast Asian endemic fruit, and isolated the cause for its formidable smell.
“Our analysis revealed that VSC production is turbocharged in durian fruits, which fits with many people’s opinions that durian smell has a ‘sulphury’ aspect,” said co-lead author Professor Patrick Tan from Duke-NUS Medical School. “The team speculates that in the wild, the ability of durians to produce high VSC levels and a pungent smell may be important in attracting animals to eat and disperse durian seeds to other regions.”
Durian is grown in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines, among other Southeast Asian countries, and is easily identified by its thorn-covered husk, size, and oblong shape. When opened, its thick, yellow, fleshy custard can cause a range of visceral reactions, ranging from disgust to fond appreciation.
Last year, actress Jessica Chastain brought the notorious fruit on set with her to “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” sharing her love of it and comparing the taste to “onions, and garlic, and avocado and pineapple, kind of like in a custard.” Jimmy Kimmel so lovingly described the taste, “on the line between horrible and delicious.”
And like all fruits, there is a huge selection of durian, with varying textures, flavors, and smells, depending on the plant variety and place of origin. Among them, the Monthong cultivar in Thailand, is the most prized, due to its sweet, fibrous, and fleshy innards.
If the pungent smell does not dissuade you, and you are ready to give this fruit a chance, the most traditional way to eat it is as-is. Simply place the durian stem-side down, and use a large knife to cut through the skin at the very top. After cutting a slit, pull the skin back with both hands so that you have two halves. Now, just remove the fruit using a spoon and dig in. And remember to wash your hands afterwards; you do not want the smell to linger with you into the rest of the day.
Regardless of what people think of the smell, this divisive fruit, that is both loved and loathed in equal parts, can so deservingly be given the title, the “king of fruits.”
Anthony Bourdain describes eating durian best: “something you will either love or despise…your breath will smell as if you’d been French-kissing your dead grandmother.”
Header image courtesy of Mohd Hafizuddin Husin via flickr.