Meeting some friends at Café Hoang on North Avenue, we had a number of good Vietnamese items, including especially delicious Bánh Xèo, a thin pancake of rice flour and cornstarch, fried and filled with steamed mung beans, green onions, and shrimp. This kind of preparation highlights so much of what we like about Southeast Asian chow: simplicity, protein used as condiment rather than main event, and perhaps most importantly, fresh herbs that lend brightness and fresh crispness to the dish.
Brightness and fresh crispness are not to be found in durian, the spiny armadillo-like Southeast Asian fruit notable for its mephitic funk.
I’d ordered a durian smoothie early on in our meal at Café Hoang, but it arrived near the end, probably because they needed to let the durian thaw a little (it’s almost always shipped to the United States frozen).
Durian has been called the “King of Fruits,” perhaps in part because of its size (it’s sometimes bigger than a regulation-size watermelon) but also because of its overpowering scent and taste.
Because of its scent, it is routinely banned from spaces in Asia, and I’ve seen signs in India and Southeast Asia, usually on hotels, warning “No dogs, no durian.” Both the canine and the fruit are deemed to be so odoriferous that neither are fit to be in the same living spaces as human beings.
And then there’s the taste. Durian’s most noticeable smell and taste is perhaps of something rotting, overriding notes of sulfur, savory, with hints of garlic or onion, but also, because it’s a fruit, sweetness.
A few years ago, I bought a durian at an Asian market on Argyle in Chicago (generally an excellent source for harder to find foodstuffs, like balut and durian). It was frozen, so I brought it home and thawed it out, then opened it up. For all that people say about the smell and taste of durian, it’s the texture that I find most disturbing: kind of creamy and custardy. I don’t really like custard texture in anything except custard: in durian or brains, the soft, milky consistency is a turn-off. We ate about one quarter of that durian (Carolyn ate some because she’s a food adventurer, but really did not like the experience). I gave a malodorous chunk of the fruit to good neighbor Chris Miller, as he too is interested in things exotic (and lived in Thailand for a while). His conclusion then, and more recently when learning of my durian smoothie, is that this fruit conveys “essence of sodden diaper.” There’s some truth to that.
So it was with some trepidation that I ordered the durian smoothie at Café Hoang. At dinner with me were five other major food enthusiasts, none of whom wanted a smoothie of their own nor even a taste of mine. I’m guessing most had tried durian before, and I feel their fear, but here’s the thing: durian smoothies can have a pleasant taste, a flavor like no other fruit, and for that reason I enjoyed my smoothie. Yes, there were the characteristic hints of sulfur, undeniable pong, though the custard-like quality of the fruit was completely lost in the blended smoothie, and perhaps the addition of sugar and milk helped dilute the intensity and help it go down more easily.
There are some foods that have a truly unique flavor, such as truffles, chitterlings and durian. If you like these distinctive flavors, you have to eat these foods. I like earthy truffles, still working on enjoying the fecal tang of chitterlings, and durian…yes, in a smoothie, I like the dialed down though still fetid stand of the durian just fine, though I doubt a smoothie of chitterlings would be quite so inviting.