As the West jeers, durian mania rises in Asia

In America, durian is much more than a tropical fruit. It’s a punchline.

There is a subgenre of YouTube, clickbait videos that presents eating durian like an extreme sport. The shtick is always the same. Someone (or a group of people) is prodded to taste the fruit for the first time.

They will retch theatrically and then start describing it in the most revolting terms possible.

BuzzFeed’s contribution to this genre — a video titled, “People Try Durian (The Smelliest Fruit In The World)” — is fairly typical of the others. Amid shouts of “ewww!” a group of Americans liken the fruit to wet garbage, mayonnaise and body parts. The payoff: 4 million views.

Not to be outdone, a YouTube star called Coyote Peterson got 6 million views for his video, “Most Disgusting Food Ever?” in which he gags and spits durian into a trash can. There are quite a few videos like this, from amateur clips to bits on late-night TV shows.

“Durian is a metaphor for how funky or possibly gross Southeast Asian cuisine can be,” said Chawadee Nualkhair, an author and food writer based in Bangkok. “It’s a way to illustrate foreignness … a shorthand for wacky.”

That’s the view from the West. But it’s difficult to overstate how silly these videos look from East and Southeast Asia. In fact, their comments sections are often filled with durian lovers from countries such as Malaysia or Singapore expressing annoyance.

Across Asia, durian is actually selling like never before. Long a coveted fruit, the durian has in recent years become the focus of a full-on, food craze.

This is largely owed to China, where the market for durians has quadrupled in the last 10 years to exceed a value of $1 billion. This heightened appetite for durian within the continent’s largest economy is sending ripple effects across the Asian tropics.

China’s topography and weather patterns aren’t ideal for growing the finest durians. So, the country imports from Southeast Asia — namely from Thailand but also Malaysia and Vietnam.

In Malaysia, a nation fiercely proud of its durians, investors are busy creating mega-orchards to profit from Chinese demand. This phenomenon is hitting Malaysia so hard that an official recently reassured the public that China would never be allowed to buy all of the country’s durians, an outcome that would be borderline treasonous.

This boom in fresh durian sales is happening in parallel to a growing market for durian-flavored snacks. The range of treats includes durian ice cream, durian pizza (from Pizza Hut), durian butter, durian-stuffed pastries, durian-flavored condoms and, at some McDonald’s outlets, the Durian McFlurry.

McDonald‘s D24 Durian McFlurry, July. 5, 2018.

Credit: McDSG

“People are crazy about durian the way people are crazy about any hard-to-grow, valuable item,” Chawadee said. “Like people are crazy about caviar. Or people are crazy about foie gras.”

Chawadee is particularly well-positioned to decipher how durians are regarded in both North America and East Asia. Born in Thailand, she was raised in New Castle, a Pennsylvania steel town where she was “the only Asian girl in a town full of white people.”

She has spent much of her adult life in Thailand, however, excluding a stint at the Parisian culinary institute École Grégoire-Ferrandi. With that schooling in mind, I ask Chawadee to detail durian’s flavor profile in the same language you’d find on a bottle of wine.

“Musky. And fleshy,” she said. “But with bright, citrusy, honey-caramel undertones.”

She also offers a more pedestrian description: “It’s sweet and creamy. Like a custard. And ice creamy! Like vanilla ice cream, mango, apricot. All those elements are in there.”

As for the smell?

“I understand that it’s pungent,” she said. “Some people have compared it to garbage or sewage but I totally don’t get that. When I smell it, I associate it with something sweet. I just don’t remember what it’s like to smell durian without having tasted it.”