I'd never felt an aching desire to try durian. When I was young, I'd encountered them lurking in the porch of my aunt's home in Hong Kong, and their festering stench made me gag. I subscribed to the popular Western consensus: that they smelled like shit and must taste like farts. Even Anthony Bourdain once warned us, "Your breath will smell as if you'd been French-kissing your dead grandmother."
This summer I spent a month in Malaysia, and the inevitable happened. I was reminded of the presence of durian everywhere—from signs at my hotel forbidding the fruit to enter the civilized interior of our nicely polished lobby, to the almost forceful passion with which locals defended their most prized fruit. I saw adverts for durian fairs and festivals, and I was greeted with interrogations over my thoughts on specific harvests.
It wasn't even just locals; I met a bunch of American and European hippies who were self-proclaimed "durian hunters." They toured Southeast Asia's orchards just to gush over the custard-y, almond-y, cheesecake-like quality of the fruit's interior. One fellow I heard of survived on solely durian for three months; another needed a piece of durian every night before he could fall asleep.
Even though the Western world has known about durian for the last 600 years, the reptilian-looking fruit is, in fact, prehistoric. Popular myths surrounding the fruit stretch all across Asia. In Java, legend has it that man and tiger were once the best of friends, and shared a plate of durian until one day man cut his thumb when opening the spiked shell and bled all over the fruit's flesh, allowing the tiger to develop a taste for human blood. (On a side note, certain carnivorous tigers do in fact have a bizarre taste for durians, probably because of their rotting, fleshy odor.)
The durian industry itself is still relatively new. Southeast Asian countries only began registering some of the thousands of varieties available in the 70s, and it wasn't till the 90s that demand started to swell. Among Westerners, the fruit is an even newer trend. Durian connoisseur Lindsay Gasik began her blog Year of the Durian in 2012, and as of this year she guides tours to durian hotspots.
"Before you travel, you really have to think about what kind of durian you like," says Gasik. "Thailand produces six times more durian than anywhere else in the world, but they're typically very sweet and picked underripe. Malaysia is the birthplace of durian, the center of its genetic diversity, and one of the most exciting places for tasting different flavors and varieties."
With that in mind, I traipsed off to western Penang. This side of the tropical Malaysian island is known for its especially high-quality durians, thanks to good irrigation systems, granite formations, hilly land, and warm air. I'd heard of Freedom Eco Farm through various durian hunters, who'd recommended the organic orchard with 350 durian trees that bear over 20 premium varieties.
To get there, you need to ride several kilometers up a steep track, ideally on a motorbike. I travelled in a crappy van that broke down mid-climb and ended up walking the last kilometer. Orchard owner Joseph Teoh greeted me with a warning to stay alert for sounds of falling durian, and not to walk directly under trees.
Keen not to become a statistic (the most recent figures claim six reported durian-related fatalities in 2012), I edged through the orchard with my nose clasped and head craning upwards, tripping over durian carcasses as Teoh chatted through the morning schedule.
Teoh, an ex-banker who abandoned his city life in favor of gorging on durians all day, every day, told me how he always scans visitors for personality traits that give clues as to what sort of durian-eater they might be. He analyzes their clothing ("If they wear bright clothes, they're likely to enjoy brighter-fleshed durian"), their features, their perfume—he looks to see what they're attracted to. "We are all part of nature. These things are predictable," Teoh said, eyeing me up and down before wandering off to find a suitable durian selection.
He came back and presented me with a "Red Prawn": one of the most sought-after durians in the world, with a colorful flesh and a notoriously thick shell. He taught me how to tell if the fruit is ripe by the pliability of the stem and texture of the spikes, before peeling it open with his hands and offering me a chunk of the wrinkly plump pulp.
Of course, durian is the ultimate love-or-hate item. Like poodles, Star Wars, or Kim Kardashian, people tend to feel strongly either way. Which is why the whole thing was such a comedown when I felt neither surges of ecstasy nor retches of repulsion. Undoubtedly, there are a lot of taste sensations to handle: thick and buttery on the tongue, sticky and super-sweet, a little spicy, almost like a dessert wine but with that definite moldy sock aftertaste that just refuses to budge.
Teoh lined up an assortment of other durians, each with surprisingly distinctive textures and flavors, which I liked marginally more or less. One variety called "Jackie Chan's Wife" was particularly pale and bitter, while "Nutmeg King" had a deep, complex mix of spices that I could appreciate but not really enjoy. None of them arrested me with that seductive prowess that I'd been promised.
For dessert, I was offered a slice of homemade durian cake that I watched being made. More than 20 durians were mashed up and continuously stirred over an open fire for four hot hours, before coconut oil was added and it was left to cool. I nibbled on a slice over some herbal tea. It tasted like an even more concentrated emulsion of questionable flavors, but without the creamy texture of the fruit.
I left feeling full, if a little queasy. Knowing I'd given it my best shot was satisfying, despite my disappointing lack of conversion to a sworn durian disciple. I watched a newly arrived cluster of durian tourists sitting in a circle around their own tailor-made durian buffet, bonding over their mutual euphoria as they devoured fruit by the fistful and compared notes on texture and terroir as they wiped their yellow intestine hands on the grass.
"When it comes to durian, there are a lot of crazies out there," said Teoh fondly.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in November 2014.