Photo by Corby Kummer
Last week I emerged from the Grand Street stop on New York's B train, the heart of Chinatown, and encountered a scene I'd never seen in this country: a stack of fresh durians, the unforgettably rusticated Asian fruit, being cut open and the flesh scooped out to lined-up customers.
Anyone traveling in Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand and Hong Kong, is shown the fruit and told the mystique: elegant hotels won't let it in the kitchen, airlines won't let it in the cargo hold, the better sort won't go anywhere near it, all because of the stench it emits. That's before it's opened, when it looks like a sculpture devised by a Baroque or Mannerist architect working in wood rather than stone. It's an undeniably neat object: I've got a miniature wooden one on my mantelpiece.
But that smell. It's somewhere between sexual and sewage, which is why people are both drawn and repelled by it. The flesh, though, is something different: there's only the vaguest trace of the scent, like musk dosed in the proper quantity so it can be used in an expensive perfume and not be overpoweringly vile. It's custardy and lush, as if it's pudding with its own subtle butterscotch sauce. And it also looks like some sort of organ, which is why some delicate sensibilities just can't stomach, let alone smell it.
I developed a love of durian that went beyond the model, but a few years ago could only find it frozen, in shallow plastic trays much like the ones the vendor I happened on was scooping the flesh into. I would patiently defrost them for a few days in the refrigerator and then feast with a spoon.
Now I can have the same but much more sensual pleasure with fresh durian--but can I have it in Boston yet? I'll have to check--and welcome all reports of fresh-durian sightings.