Forget Krueger, Jason, Michael Myers. True horror lies in the smell of the durian. Also known as the ‘stink fruit’ or ‘vomit fruit’, this juiceless, horned, peel-fleshy nightmare has been variously described as smelling like rotting onions, and over-filled diaper, or, by the late gourmand Anthony Bourdain, as being like ‘French kissing your dead grandmother’. To me, it smells like industrialized, concentrated garlic dipped in acid and vats of overripe parsnips, with echoes of mango, papaya and other flagrant tropical fruit (I remember driving through Indonesian villages in Java and the pungent aroma of the much prized delicacies, stacked up on village corners, being so overpowering you had to immediately close the window; and yet, I think I got it : part of me can definitely understand the attraction to the fruit’s \ bouquet, riven with its very sensual, hard-hitting fecundity; but only from a distance. Up close, it makes me almost heave). Though I have eaten durian desserts at a Chinese restaurant in Ginza – when tempered, messed with and toned down by a good chef, the rather acrid, masculine belch of this fruit can be rendered much more pleasing – ; by itself, at least for one not used to it, this fruit is unutterably vile.
It should obviously go without saying that your reaction to the durian will completely depend on your cultural background. There are hundreds of millions of people who adore and deeply value this addictive and expensive fruit (imported durians go in Shinjuku for $50 to $100 dollars – I have sniffed them on several occasions at the station fruit stall, where I often buy cut pineapple on a stick, and not just once; there is something that makes you go back to the durian, to keep smelling it and reconfirm. The perfume is deep, it goes down to the pit of your stomach). All across China and South East Asia the fruits are in constant demand, so whether the smell makes your mouth water, or alternatively makes you want to puke, will depend on what country you were born in and just what you were used to eating and smelling as a young child.
Cultural accustomization accounts for a great deal of what we consider delicious or repulsive. Japanese people visiting Britain, for example (infamous here as being a country with terrible food), are often shocked by the profound revoltingness of baked beans, Marmite, and especially licorice (unfathomable – one boy I met was deeply traumatized by just one piece of black bitterness, whose taste never totally left the mental vestiges of his mouth); all foodstuffs I happen to enjoy. Black pudding (sausage-like entities made of fried pig’s blood) is understandably considered beyond repellent; Bovril, warm ‘beef extract’ served in a plastic cup at a football match is still one of the lowpoints of my childhood, – god knows how people from other places would respond to its misery – while the mass appeal of fish and chips is also largely baffling to the majority of Japanese people – tasteless, huge, swimming in grease, about 10,000- calories – (you might find the odd afficionado who takes to a pile of newspaper filled with deep fat fried chopped potatoes covered in salt and vinegar) , but on the whole, the ‘national dish’ is found to be a very deep, ‘I told-you-so’ disappointment when it is finally sampled (for me, conversely, chips are heaven – I was so happy being back in the summer and being able to indulge in such a cheap delectation), but then again I grew up on them —- what could be more natural to a Brit than a bag of chips? ‘Objectively’, though, if such a thing were possible, would this rather slovenly dish stand up to to international consensus?
While overall, I definitely worship the level of food culture in Japan (it would be impossible not to), there are still plenty of things on the menu here that I cannot stomach; offal stew, for instance; the majority of meat and fish (fatty and undercooked); the absolute, body deep repugnance I feel for most varieties of seaweed, in particular, tororokonbu, strips of rubbery, algaed sea hair that make me want to die even in almost undetectable proportions – I would gorge on the durian any day of the week rather than be forced to eat a kaisendon, for example – the absolute epitome of deliciousness for many epicureans in Japan:
Taste is greatly subjective, culturally pre-decided; a lot of Japanese schoolkids, like vegetable-loathing children worldwide – truly abhor avocado, tomato, celery and green peppers, for example – all things I consume eagerly on a regular basis, but are horrified to learn that I myself can’t touch raw squid
(ugh!! :: : H O W ?!! I would run from the restaurant screaming, particularly when it is served live, in a bowl of ‘dancing squid’ but that’s just me )
….. ……………. ….. But back to the durian.
What is unique about the durian is that even in the countries where the fruit is deeply appreciated, in the hospitality industry no one pretends that it doesn’t, in fact, stink to high heaven and can be smelled a mile off, floating through walls and under doors, precisely the reason why it is banned in hotels and business spaces across Asia, on trains in Singapore; It makes little kids cry ; it is very love/hate divisive
and is cross-culturally found challenging by a very large number of people.
You might be wondering why I have seemingly decided at random to discuss, even pillorize, durians – which, in truth, don’t play a large role in my life – at Halloween, fearing I have finally, actually lost my marbles.
The reason is this:
Yesterday afternoon, after airing the house intently, and then having lit various new kinds of beautiful Japanese incense in different rooms, I cycled out to the shops in the flittering Autumn sunlight expecting to come back home and sigh an ahhh of olfactory delight.
Instead, as I re-entered the house thirty or so minutes later, I was totally bewildered by the thick miasma that was all round me and felt dismayed.
‘Is this what our house smells like when people come round even after lighting expensive high quality incense?” was one thought
that occurred to me as my mind tried to grapple with the sulphurous, asafoetida-like haze that hung in the air, like putrid mangoes that have rotted to grey dust and shatter like skeletons in a bad mummy movie.
The mystery was eventually resolved when D came down from upstairs ,where he had been hanging washing on the line, unaware of my confused, quasi-retching in the kitchen.
When we were coming back to Tokyo in August from Kuala Lumpur, we had (very foolishly) spent all of our money on souvenirs in the airport gift shops, unaware that our Japanese credit cards were no longer working and that we in fact had zero money; instead, we had bags of colourful edible keepsakes (very nice passion fruit and mandarin Earl Grey tea, and I quite liked the mango chocolates, though the filling was rather intense). The durian pralines though – mon dieu! D had taken a box of them to work, where colleagues, both Japanese and foreign, had politely tried them and then rushed urgently to the toilet to spit them out; I had then insisted he bring that box home as I just had to know. And indeed, although at first the fleshed pungency of the durian innard was mitigated slightly by the chocolate shell, once you got into the serious, hardcore fruit filling, the effect was mind-bendingly horrible, shocking; I would go so far as to say upsetting. Because once you had tried one (obviously you would never try two), the deep cavernous garlic of the durio zibethinus paste was so searing, so shuddering, for me and D at least, that it penetrated to the very centre of your being.
The instant white durian dried coffee was apparently even worse. No one had got past half a sip at his workplace, before spontaneous ejection from the lips. Knowing that we would never in a million years ever drink this (we had tried to keep an open mind in trying it at least…though I never got to), he had ripped up the packets yesterday in order to be environmentally friendly, disposing of the the durian dust first and throwing the containers away in the appropriate plastic garbage , unconscious of the effect it would have on my smell brain when I walked back into the house. Later in the evening, if the cupboard door where the olfactory biohazard was being stored was opened even an iota at any point I would start with a smell-traumatized spasm; shouting out (a physical reaction); the smell so strong that even when it was closed, it permeated and pervaded the entire house.
I am definitely not a fan.