With its spiky appearance and unmistakable odour, durian, or ‘the king of fruit’ as it known to some, is loved and hated throughout Southeast Asia for its pungent smell and distinctive taste. For Oregon native Lindsay Gasik, however, chasing durian has become a way of life. From January 1, 2012 until December 31, 2013, Lindsay and her husband Rob ate durian almost every day as they experienced the ‘durian seasons’ of nine Southeast and South Asian countries. On her return to the United States, Lindsay set to work writing a book about her travels. She spoke to Bennett Murray about the peculiarities of her passion.
When did you first try durian?
In Eugene [Oregon] about four years ago. I went to a wedding, and this crazy guy was going off about how all awesome durian is - he said it was like a drug. So I went to the Asian market and spent my week’s pay [$30] to buy one. I was working as a maid, so I didn’t make much money, but I just threw it all out there for that durian. It was my first time, and I loved it. It tasted like vanilla ice cream, and I am a huge vanilla ice cream fan.
It tasted like vanilla ice cream? I’ve never heard that one before.
Seriously? Durian has all different kinds of flavours. If you get the right kind, it takes like vanilla. It can taste like chocolate, it can taste like coffee, it can taste like red wine... it depends on the variety and where it is grown. Some like them sweet and nutty, some like them tasting like frosting from Costco: thick and super sweet. But I hate that. I prefer my durians to be bitter, like chocolate and coffee. There’s a big schism about people and how they like their durians, and I think that’s totally fine.
Did I hear you say that durian is like a drug?
You sit down with your friends, and you eat durian, and some people have theorised that you can get drunk or high off durian. And I’ve experienced that, so I believe it. If you eat enough, you will feel really good. It’s titillating to the senses, you have the visuals and the textures, and it’s always a surprise what you find inside.
What was the idea behind the trip?
We wanted to compare how each country feels about durian, and meet people who had integrated durian into their lifestyles. The thing about durian is that it is in season in various countries in Southeast Asia at different times. So it is actually possible to eat durian 365 days a year if you are ready to move.
How are the durians in Cambodia?
I am a strong supporter of eating locally and preserving diversity within the industry. To that end, I’m a little concerned that in Cambodia they may be losing their durian diversity. Cambodia has several very delicious durian varieties like Nungoye, Dongkat, and Jewhut, but these trees are often being chopped down in favour of Thai varieties like Monthong which fetch a higher price, for now. I think it’s sad that Cambodia is losing its durians. Cambodia had a thriving durian industry in the 1970s before the Khmer Rouge that was basically destroyed – part of why the Cambodian industry is weaker than all the countries surrounding it.
Different people prefer harvesting durians at different stages of ripeness. At what point do you think that the fruit should be taken off the vine?
First, I’m going to make fun of you for saying ‘take it off the vine’. It’s a tree. I prefer for the durians to fall off the tree on their own. There’s a little joint on the stem, and when it ripens, that part weakens and it falls off. Depending on the variety, it can take 90 to140 days. I think it develops a different taste when it’s ripened. At 80 percent maturity, which is common in Cambodia, it never develops the proper sweetness.
How do locals react to your love of durian?
A lot of people can’t believe there are Westerners out there who like durian. They say, no, you can’t eat durian because white people don’t like durian. Then they’re usually shocked, because I eat more durians than they do.
See Lindsay’s website: www.yearofthedurian.com