Thai Food 101: How to Stop Worrying and Love Stinky Durian

Rotting garbage. Raw sewage. Dirty gym socks. Those are just a few of the descriptors people attach to the fragrance of the durian: the “king of fruits” and slayer of nasal passages. However, the taste of the durian is a different matter; frequently attributed to a mix of custard and almonds, or whipped cream, or crème brulee. This fruit is capable of inspiring feelings from extremes of total devotion or complete disgust.

With the first few weeks of durian season upon us, people are beginning to stalk the fruit sections of their local markets in earnest, searching for the perfect specimen to terrorize fellow passengers on the BTS. But for the durian neophyte, the different varieties and ways to select the perfect fruit can be as confusing as remembering who’s who in Game of Thrones.  What to choose and when? And what to expect after getting it home?

A short primer on durian to start with: durian is actually not native to Thailand. Durian originally grew in Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, but Thailand is now one of the fruit’s biggest exporters and the site of the World Durian Festival every year. Growing to roughly the size of a rugby ball, the fruit sports an intimidatingly thorny, hard husk, inside which hide soft, creamy pods ranging from gold to pale yellow.

In most Thai markets, durian is usually served conveniently dissected, the pods out on display on the countertop or already packed in plastic. This is both good and bad: there is no need to wrestle with the fruit, killing yourself in your own kitchen in the process and disturbing your Thai neighbors with glimpses of your ghost roaming the grounds, an unopened durian clutched in your cold dead hands. But it can also be hard to assess the fruit’s ripeness, since most vendors recommend rapping the durian’s husk with a stick or the handle of a knife. A hollow sound indicates that the pulp has dried, meaning the pods are ready to be eaten.

One of the most popular types of durian sold in markets is mon thong, or golden pillow.” Every place selling durian, from the wet market to the chain supermarket, features this variety, which is prized for its mild and creamy taste and slight crunch. It is the only type of durian that stands up to being made into a somtam, or grated salad, when green. Unfortunately, mon thong is so ubiquitous that many streetside vendors advertise mon thong durians when they are actually a different – and less expensive – type.

But while mon thong dominates every marketplace, gan yao (long stem) is probably the most popular among Thai lovers of the durian. Known as the mildest-smelling of the commonly-sold varieties, gan yao’s sweet flavor and relatively long window of peak deliciousness usually makes it a safe bet, durian-wise, when you are at the fruit vendor’s stall, puzzling over what to reach for.

Puangmanee is another story: sold for its relatively large pods, this type is considered “good” for only a few weeks out of the year. Meanwhile, chanee (monkey) and gradoom (button) are the least appreciated of the durian varieties, stronger-smelling and “messier” to eat than the firmer mon thong or gan yao durians.

Because durian is considered a “heating” food, Thais frequently avoid drinking alcohol at the same time as dining on durian, and/or pair their durian with a handful of mangosteens, considered a “cooling” fruit. Others recommend drinking water out of the husk after eating – difficult if all you’ve hauled out of your local Tops supermarket is a Styrofoam pack of durian pods.

Most durian lovers consider themselves true aficionados of Thai food, and who can blame them? There must be some payoff for ingesting all that durian. My personal beef with durian is that its smell – offensive in a way that recalls savory flavors – doesn’t match up in my brain with how it ultimately tastes. This is sort of like the problem I have with natto (Japanese fermented soybeans) as well: its shrimp paste-like smell vs. its ultimately bland flavor and propensity to leave rotten-bean string all over your face. Maybe some day my tastes will mature. And maybe someday I will appreciate the new Daario Naharis.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in April 2014, but the Coconuts crew is bringing it back from the archives since the information it contains remains relevant and useful. Rest assured, we’ve reviewed and updated it to make sure this oldie but goodie will still serve you well.

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