The foodiverse is full of unique and sometimes bizarre smells. From the raw, rich pungency of roasting garlic to the sharp, salty tang of blue cheese, some of the tastiest ingredients can often be the smelliest. Smell is also our guide to avoiding some of the less appetising items on the menu. As anyone who’s taken a whiff of rotten milk can vouch, something that makes you want to throw up is usually best poured down the sink. As Gandalf once said, “when in doubt...always follow your nose”. But as it turns out, there are a few exceptions to this seemingly sensible advice.
Southeast Asia is a region famous for its foodie diversity. Huge numbers of plants and animals are harvested and eaten, producing cuisine that varies dramatically from country to country. Of all these different species, perhaps the most numerous are the fruits. There are literally thousands of types scattered across the sub-continent, appearing in everything from salads to desserts and everything in between. They can be exotic, unusual and absolutely delicious. They can also be so horrible that they become a public health hazard.
There is one particularly infamous fruit that falls firmly into the latter category. Over the years, the durian has built up one of the most fearsome reputations of anything in the world of food. Looking like a giant armoured rugby ball, this enormous spiky lump can weigh up to 40 pounds. So heavy is it that it is known to kill several people a year by falling on them. Despite the danger, the durian is prized in Southeast Asian cooking and goes by the impressive sobriquet “the king of fruits”. But it isn’t lethal flying missiles that have helped cement the durian’s status as a truly weird delicacy.
Durian is world-famous for possessing one of the most powerful smells of any food on the planet. A mixture of suffocating sweetness and gag-inducing rot, people’s reactions to it vary from mild annoyance to out and out terror. Explorers and locals alike have all been left retching after the slightest whiff of ripe durian, and with good reason. Food writer Richard Sterling wrote that, “its odor is best described as…turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock,” and the late, great Anthony Bourdain warned that, “your breath will smell as if you’d been French-kissing your dead grandmother.” Clearly, this is not a fruit to approach lightly.
The smell of the durian is an extraordinary scientific anomaly. Produced by sulphides in the fruit’s spiky rind, the aroma can be identified from several miles away if the wind is right. Though many fruits and vegetables, including garlic and onions, contain one or two of the chemicals responsible for producing this signature potency, durians contain 43. This unique combination is what helps the durian transcend normal bad smells into something truly hideous.
It’s not just whining westerners that have difficulty stomaching the durian’s unique scent. In many places, the fruit is actually banned from public places for fear of the panic it could cause if the smell were to be accidentally unleashed. In Singapore, signs line underground stations warning against carrying the fruit on trains, and several large hotel chains in Southeast Asia have elected to ban them outright from their buildings. It’s not every fruit that warrants its own quarantine procedure.
Given the durian’s terrifying reputation, you could be forgiven for wondering why on earth anyone would want to buy one. However, despite the horrific smell, many locals swear that the fruit tastes absolutely incredible. During durian season, the fruit is eaten direct from the husk and celebrated at enormous fruit-themed festivals. Often, the sweet fleshy pulp - said to taste like a rich, buttery custard - is combined with cheesecakes and ice creams to create a dazzling array of desserts. Though the flavours are undoubtedly fabulous, the smell must be equally extraordinary.
Perhaps thanks to its almost mythical potency, the durian has been the subject of many strange legends. When eaten fresh, the fruit is rumoured to have an intoxicating effect and many locals warn against consuming too much before driving. It is also supposed to be a powerful aphrodisiac. In addition to less scientific claims, durians are known to be high in healthy fats and protein. It is also a rich source of tryptophan, an amino acid known to alleviate anxiety and depression. All things considered, "the king of fruit" might not be such a bad name after all.
Thanks to the specific conditions needed to grow it, and the bravery needed to try it, there’s little danger of supermarkets outside of Asia being troubled by the durian. However, even if you never come across it in your life, it’s worth remembering that there is some food out there that is more powerful than you can possibly imagine.