It was February, 2013. I was in Singapore teaching an MS class. At some point near the end of  dinner one night, fellow MS, Brian Julyan, and I suddenly thought we smelled natural gas in the restaurant where we were dining. Or mercaptan, to be precise, which is added to natural gas to make it detectable. The odor was strong enough that we called a server over to let them know about it. He answered quickly, “no gas, just durian.” The phrase had barely left his mouth when another server put down a plate of white pastries in front of us. Brian looked at me and tersely said, “no way.” After all, he’d been burned once before and had never forgiven me for it. “I’m going in,” I announced to the table. I then took one of the spongy pastries off the plate and quickly popped it into my mouth without further thought. What followed was an instant descent into a wormhole of culinary/sensory hell with the most bizarre combination of horrific aromas I’ve ever experienced.  

This wasn’t my first encounter with durian. In 2007, I went to Singapore for the first time with Brian and Evan Goldstein to teach the inaugural MS Introductory Course in Asia. As we headed out to dinner one night, we drove past a produce stand on the side of the street that had an enormous stockpile of bizarre green fruit.  Someone in our party asked Tommy Lam, our local contact, about the fruit, which resembled a cross between a green football and an armadillo. “Durian,” he said. “Tastes good but smells really awful.” Being the ever curious and compulsive Americans, we had to know more. After all, how bad could something possibly smell? To satisfy our morbid curiosity, Tommy drove around the block and then rolled down the windows on our second pass. Instantly, a stench assaulted the car—a combination of fecal, road kill, and the essence of the putrefaction-decay cycle. It was overwhelming. That people would even consider eating something that smelled so foul was beyond belief. But I still had to know more.

The name durian comes from the Malay word “duri,” which translates as thorn. In Asia, it’s called the “king of fruits.” Durian is known for its large size (up to 12 inches long) and can weigh up to seven pounds. There are some 30 known species of which nine produce edible fruit. More than anything, durian is legendary for its remarkably strong, repulsive odor—an odor so pungent that it’s banned on public transportation throughout Southeast Asia. Otherwise, durian has been consumed since prehistoric times but has only been known to the western world for about 600 years. The earliest known European written record of the fruit is by Niccolò Da Conti, who traveled to Asia in the 15th century. 

I asked students in that first Introductory Class about durian and whether they liked it or not. The group was split right down the middle, with half crooning at the mention of the word and the other half utterly repulsed. There was no middle ground. Those who loved it professed to be addicted to it. One young woman said she considered durian to be an aphrodisiac, or at the very least a delicacy. She went on to say that the combination of sweet melon-like fruit with jalapeno-peppery spiciness was to die for. However, someone else in the class said it should be completely outlawed. Several in the group also said that eating too much durian in a short period of time could cause dangerously high blood pressure. I imagine one’s olfactory bulb would probably explode long before that.

After that initial drive-by experience, Brian, Evan, and I teased each other for days about trying durian. But it wasn’t until the very last day of the trip in the basement of one of the city’s well-known shopping mega-complexes that we had our opportunity. Wandering through the glaring fluorescent-lit aisles, Brian and I came face to face with a kiosk called, “Durian for All Seasons.” We looked at each other knowing that if we were ever going to taste durian, this would be it. As fate—either fortuitous or cruel—would have it, there, next to the register, was a plate filled with samples; small wafer cookies with a thin green filling. “Come on, Brian,” I said, “how bad could it be?” Note to self. Anytime someone asks that question, the answer is probably going to be some variation of as bad as possible.

I took two of the cookies and handed one to a reluctant Brian. As I popped the cookie into my mouth, I experienced something that’s happened every time I’ve tried durian since; the slowing down or stoppage of time. Let me explain. Whenever I’ve tasted durian, I’m reminded of the time when I was a kid riding my bike on a hot summer day, and I wiped out on a neighborhood street that had just been repaved. Just as I was about to hit the pavement, time slowed down and almost stopped. I could smell the tar of the new pavement, feel the heat coming off it, and then feel myself hitting it and bouncing a few times—all in super slow motion. Eating durian was similar probably because the olfactory experience is so overwhelming that it short circuits the part of the brain that tracks time. 

After eating my cookie, I looked at Brian. His expression was somewhere between stunned and mortified. He looked back at me and said with quiet desperation, “coffee!  Now!” We raced up four endless escalators to a coffee shop and waited ten long minutes to be seated while the taste of green radioactivity bubbled away on our palates. After an eternity, we were seated and ordered black coffees. Brian didn’t speak for a long time. Finally, after he finished a second cup of coffee that was so strong it would take oil stains off a driveway, he turned to me and said, “you, sir, have betrayed my trust.” I don’t think he’s ever forgiven me for it. 

Back to that night’s dinner. As I popped the durian pastry into my mouth, I was assaulted by that unique durian stench and experienced time stopping once again. Gearoid Devaney, the third MS in our trio, described my expression as “like someone being electrocuted.” I sat quietly managing the sensory overload as best I could, while the conversation at the table and the din of the restaurant went on around me. The experience was reminiscent of having a natural gas line installed in your mouth. I reached for water several times and also downed my glass of the most tannic red wine on the table. The stench and taste diminished after a few minutes, but was still there in force long after. It would remain for hours with the last remnants still there the next morning after repeated brushing and flossing. But I would survive to tell the tale.

What wine pairs well with durian? It probably doesn’t exist. Much stronger water is needed, and only something in the spirits world could possibly match the intensity. I’m not curious enough at this point to do any further research. As for your own durian adventures, you have been warned.