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The Fruit That Smells Like Gym Socks Is Skyrocketing in China

A freshly cut Musang King durian. (Image by: Rahman Roslan - Bloomberg)

China’s love of a pungent, football-sized thorny fruit is skyrocketing, and Malaysia wants a piece of it.

The value of China’s fresh imports of durian fruit has climbed an average of 26 percent a year over the past decade, reaching $1.1 billion in 2016, according to United Nations data. Thailand dominates that market, but Malaysian politicians are counting on durian diplomacy to expand access beyond frozen fruit pulp. A Malaysian durian festival in Nanning, in southern China, earlier this month had about 165,000 people lining up to taste thawed, whole-fruit samples of the country’s premium Musang King variety.

“Some of them said that, now in China, there are two things that people will queue up for: the iPhone X, and Malaysian durians,” Minister of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Ahmad Shabery Cheek said Saturday. He was speaking at a durian festival in Pahang, Peninsular Malaysia’s largest state, that drew durian devotees from as far away as central China.

‘King of Fruits’

Across Malaysia, where the durian is dubbed the “King of Fruits,” orchards are recording a spike in Chinese tourists eager to savor a food that is routinely banned from hotels, airports and on public transportation for its polarizing smell.

The durian often invokes a love or hate relationship: aficionados describe the internal yellow carpels as a rich, butter-like custard, with hints of chives, powdered sugar, and caramel in whipped cream. Others are repulsed by its smell, which has been likened to rotten onions, turpentine and dirty gym socks.

In China, consumers are embracing different foods incorporating the tropical fruit, said Loris Li, a food and drink analyst with market researcher Mintel Group Ltd. in Shanghai. Durian is being used to flavor products from yogurt and cookies to coffee and pizza.


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