Last year, China's Global Times newspaper ran an article about Malaysian durians being imported to China. It told the story of an early importer who brought samples of the fruit into the country 20 years ago; when a hotel cleaner opened the door to the importer's room, she vomited due to the stench of his wares.
This won't surprise anyone who has caught a waft of durian: the fruit that usually reveals itself to the nose before the eyes and, for many people, never gets near the mouth. Despite its pungency, it is known as the "king of fruits" in southeast Asia. Durians from Thailand are imported to China in great quantities, with Malaysian durian imports on the rise.
Food writer Richard Sterling described the smell of durian as like "turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock." I would add rotting meat into that mix, but it's pretty accurate, and helps explain why durian is banned on many public transport systems in Asia. Should someone crack open one of these things in your train carriage, you'd be yearning for an open tuna can to plunge your nose into for relief.
Still, the quality of durians imported to China has risen in recent years, and they have become available further across the country, having first entered in the south. As well as being eaten alone raw, durian is a popular dessert and cake ingredient, with many Beijing cake shops specialising in treats containing it.
Now Pizza Hut has decided that the time is right for the fruit to be pushed as a pizza topping in China, having teased the idea last year. After launching in the southern Guangdong province in 2015, it's being rolled out in large cities across the country.
"The durian pizza is a unique innovation that's created a lot of buzz among our customers," Pizza Hut told MUNCHIES in an email statement. "The balanced fusion of durian, cheese, and pan dough has turned out to be a delicious, perfect match and combines the unique durian flavour with a much lighter smell."
Sales have reportedly been strong, although one Beijing Pizza Hut chef has complained that he has to get colleagues to make the pizza for him, as he can't stand the durian smell. Being something of a fruitphobe anyway, I headed to a Pizza Hut branch in central Beijing to try this thing myself with no small sense of trepidation.
Having never been close enough to a durian to taste one before, I asked a Chinese friend, Fan, what I was missing. "The taste is mildly sweet," said Fan, who had already tried the durian pizza and liked it. "It's textured like ice cream or runny French cheese. It's a uniquely strong flavour, like rotten mushy onions, that fills your mouth. The first tasting leads people to be a durian lover or hater."
Despite the "rotten mushy onions" comparison, Fan is a durian lover. "My first try was awful because I ate immature durian—you couldn't buy delicious durian in northern China a few years ago," she said. "I tried it in Thailand again and that changed me from a hater to a lover. The pizza is an amazing idea for durian lovers. I never thought of eating hot durian before, so it's interesting."
Pizza Hut in China is known for its bizarre menu atrocities, which have included a ballistic shrimp tempura pizza and the confusing spaghetti and "steak" combo, complete with its greasy cardboard fence. But as my nostrils filled with the sickly-sweet pong of the durian chunks placed in front of me, I knew that these prior offerings were bat-sized pet devils compared to this hellish monstrosity of Satan food.
I took a bite, gagged, dry-retched, and nearly spewed across the table. I have wrestled a seven-foot bear and drank my own urine for articles, but this was a new level of journalistic self-punishment. The taste was so, so strong. It painted the inside of my mouth with sappy, putrid tones of gone-off onions, meat, and sweet sweat, aggressively lingering like a murderer in a cupboard.
My British politeness kicked in and I contained the urge to vomit, instead asking for a takeaway box and bag to avoid having to leave the pizza, minus one bite, on the table. Through the thick cardboard box and plastic bag, the stench still hit like a cricket bat to the nose.
I left the almost fully intact durian pizza on a nearby self-service bicycle in the hope that the next rider would be a durian lover. I headed off with the mild guilt of someone who has let their dog foul a public path, but who has forgotten their scooper.
My reaction was purely the result of my newly discovered distaste for this particular fruit, of course, and my analysis of this pizza must be considered bearing this in mind. Still, I cannot, in good faith, recommend choosing it over the Pepperoni Feast.
Follow Jamie Fullerton on Twitter: @jamiefullerton1