Durians Smell Awful — But the Taste Is Heavenly

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"To eat it seems to be the sacrifice of self-respect," wrote 19th-century American journalist Bayard Taylor. French naturalist Henri Mouhot was a bit less delicate: "On first tasting it I thought it like the flesh of some animal in a state of putrefaction."

Hate them or — as millions already do — love them, for many durians are nothing less than "hell on the outside and heaven on the inside." That Southeast Asian saying in fact sums up the regard in which Durio zibethinus is held. For many in the region, the spiny, football-size fruit with the divinely custardy, yet potently odoriferous, flesh is as much a cultural icon as it is a treasured, eagerly anticipated food.

Growing on trees in moist, tropical climates throughout Southeast Asia, durians have a limited season and an extremely short shelf life. The trees themselves, sometimes as tall as 130 feet, are pollinated by bats. Three to four months later, the fruit, each weighing several pounds, plummets down, already reeking with its characteristic aroma. Because of the short duration of tasty ripeness, durians are expensive, and purchasing one is a solemn, smelly ritual: only by odor can one determine whether a durian is truly ripe. Not surprisingly for so valued a fruit, all parts of the durian tree are used in folk medicine. The flesh itself is regarded as an aphrodisiac.

Today, even with websites devoted to durians and improved shipping around the world, the fruit's unexpurgated flavor and smell still remain a unique experience of the East.

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