By Deborah Tan & Ian Muirhead
If you eat one thing in Malaysia, make it a durian.
Durian is one of the most acquired tastes in the world. A hard, spikey shell houses this intimidating “king of fruit” and certainly makes it worthy of its moniker. It reigns in every way: the smell, the taste, the feel. Consuming durian is a truly unforgettable experience, or at least my first durian encounter was.
I travelled to Malaysia with my wife to meet once and for all, her overseas family. Having been estranged from this side of her family growing up, the importance of this visit was paramount, so there was no doubt about going to Malaysia in the middle of monsoon season for her grandfather’s 82nd birthday.
We arrived at the Kuala Lumpur airport late at night, met by a wave of humidity that stuck to my body like cling wrap. My wife’s college-aged cousins enthusiastically greeted us, waving from the arrival hall, then ushering us into the car for the three hour drive south to the small town of Segamat. My first of many hair-raising car rides in Malaysia began, as the young, male testosterone-charged cousin drove like a maniac through the night. I wouldn’t discover till many days later that this fast-paced style of driving is the norm; like the “Malaysian merge”, a specific style of driving that requires no shoulder checks.
The first meal we ate in Malaysia was at some middle-of-nowhere roadside restaurant, another first of many encounters; being the only tall, white dude in the joint. Definitely no blending in here. But at least the food did not disappoint as I dove into my nasi goreng, rice served in a banana leaf with fried chicken and chili paste. Simple and delicious.
It wasn’t until many days later when I was exposed to durian. We were on a round of supper, which to Malaysian people is actually a meal after dinner (eating is a national pastime here, not just a necessity) and the cousins decided we should visit the specialty food stall which sold durian exclusively. We arrived and sat at a plastic table and plastic stools under fluorescent lights. The smell of the shop was distinct: a sweet decaying perfume permeated the air. The display shelf featured durians all lined up like spiky chickens perched in their roost. The different-sized and varieties of sat under a sign that read: “King of Fruits”. They looked ominous in all their beige and prickly glory.
A fruit was chosen and the vendor used an enormous machete to hack the durian in half. It was pried open and the odour weaved its way into my olfactory: distinct and immediate. Inside the fruit were cream coloured lumps about the size of lemons, soft and mushy to the touch. There was a lot of excitement amongst the cousins to see just how ‘the Westerner’ would react to his first taste of durian.
I held a piece of fruit to my face, unsure about what to think of it; I looked at it and it looked at me. Unfortunately it’s not the kind of thing that you can just put into your mouth, swallow and get it over with. You actually have to engage with the strange morsel and eat the flesh around its enormous seeds. The texture takes you by surprise, it’s silky and creamy like a custard which is in juxtaposition to the taste that overwhelms your tastebuds. It is a cacophony of flavours, strangely sweet yet savoury with notes of fermentation. I don’t think there is anything I have ever eaten that requires reigning in your gag reflex, as you forcibly swallow it down.
The cousins gutted themselves laughing as they watched my face squirm and pucker with the first bite, goading me to try more. Needless to say, a single piece of the fruit was all that I needed. I was reminded of the fruit for the next four days every time I brought my fingers to my face, no matter how much I washed my hands I could not remove the potent smell from my skin.
Durian really is the “king of fruit”, it rocked my senses like no other tree- dangling-produce has. You may love it or you may extremely dislike it but either way you will never forget your first encounter with the “king”.
This post was guest written by Deborah Tan, from the perspective of her intrepid first-time traveler husband, Ian Muirhead. Deborah and Ian live in Vancouver, B.C. and fresh from their travel adventures abroad. Deborah is a government-employee by day and running-cyclist-guest-travel-blogger by night. Ian is an UX/UI developer based in Vancouver with his awesome wife Deborah Tan. Check out his work here: www.ianmuirhead.com
So what kind of foreign foods have you tried for the first time? Share your experience in the comments below.