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Divisive Durian

I’ve created some tension in my house because I am storing durian in the fridge.  It’s not even a full durian fruit, just the pulpy insides, which are in a shrink-wrapped plastic box.  Nonetheless, it is stinking up the  refrigerator, so that a cloud of durian-stench wafts out every time the fridge is opened.

For those of you not familiar with durian, it just stinks.  Of durian, Anthony Bourdain has remarked that after eating, “your breath will smell as if you’d been french kissing your dead grandmother.”  In Singapore and other parts of Southeast Asia, durians are banned from being brought into enclosed public spaces.  However, they are also praised as “the king of fruits” in that same part of the world.  Here in the West, they are a lightning rod of controversy.  As far as I can tell, most people in this country are thoroughly disgusted by the durian before they even taste it.  Even then, they are likely not to come back for a  second bite.  Now, I sought out durian a few years back after reading about it in some Asian cookbooks, which sung its praises.  I  find it quite delicious, addictive  even – but I do not deny that it is pungent – and funky tasting – as hell.  After several unsuccessful attempts to turn people on to durian, I have come to the realization that most people are happier not to have me serve it to them.  So I am forced to enjoy it in solitude, sitting and eating it in the  backyard because  my wife does not want it in the house.

Case in point: I threw a dinner party awhile back, and since I had some durian in the fridge and needed to cook dessert, I threw together a durian cheesecake.  I figured, what better way to ease people into eating durian – they don’t have to deal with the pungent fruit itself,  it will be mixed with traditional cheesecake ingredients to cut the strong flavor.  The meal went off great, everyone was singing the praises  of the food, so I brought out my cheesecake with much fanfare.  There was much discussion and anticipation, my dinner guests being familiar with the durian but never having sampled one.  I should add that this was a sophisticated group of diners, many of whom would not hesitate to consume the funkiest of unpasteurized french cheeses.  But durian threw them for a loop.  Many took one bite and left the rest. Maybe one guest ate his entire piece, though less than enthusiastically.  It was pretty much a stellar flop on my part, I should have just served some ice cream.  So I learned my lesson – durian is not ready for prime time in this country, or indeed outside of Southeast Asia.  You will not be buying durian at Gristedes or through FreshDirect in the near future, if ever.  Durian will not be all the  rage on NYC menus, nor will it be sold from food trucks.  Its just too funky, and too divisive.  Its one of the few foods that separates consumers into two camps – utter revulsion, or blissful enjoyment.  There is no in-between, no one is just okay with being served durian (actually, J. Burger may provide  an example of someone who is basically lukewarm about durian.  Of course, she is Southeast Asian, so she is kind of over it at this point).

Next up: I am keen to find some interesting new recipes, beyond custard, smoothies and cheesecakes.  Durian cake intrigues me but my wife will never forgive me if I fill the house  with the smell of cooked durian, so that will have to wait.  I’m also curious about durian pairings.  We all know that prosciutto and  melon pair well together, but what on earth pairs with durian?  I feel like there is lots of new culinary ground to be broken with durian, once you have gotten past creamy desserts.  I’m just sorry I can’t get more people enthusiastic about this particular journey – but, as the Grateful Dead sang:  if I go, no one may follow, that path is for my steps alone.

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Road Trip Cambodia: All The Fruits

July 23, 2010 2 comments

Brooklyn Heights has streets named Cranberry, Orange and Pineapple, but maybe we can convince Marty Markowitz to change them to Rambutan, Durian and Mangosteen.

My travel companion (aka Edna Krabappel) had never been to Southeast Asia prior to this trip, and I was determined to introduce her to some of the native fruits.  Ever the sport, Edna agreed to at least try the more uncommon fruits, regardless of what she had heard about them prior to the trip.

We started off with an easy one: rambutan.  Rambutan is the hairy cousin of lychee and longan, and it is eaten in the same way as its less spikey counterparts.  After delicately getting past the leathery outer portion with a knife, all you have to do is pick out the white fleshy inside and eat around the inner seed.  It’s sweet with a slight hint of tart.  Edna really liked rambutan and said it was better than both lychee and longan.  All three can usually be found in your local Chinatown or Asian market.

J. Frankfurter is a fan of durian.  Not so long ago, he bought one to try and then proceeded to make a durian cheesecake, much to the chagrin of his wife.  With respect to this trip, J. Frankfurter adamantly requested that I get Edna to try durian.

For those unfamiliar, durian is a large, thorn-covered fruit known for its distinctive odor and flavor which people either love or hate.  I neither love it nor hate it.  Honestly, I’m not really bothered by the odor and think it smells somewhat sweet.

Many people, however, are so bothered by the odor (which has been described in terms that are not re-printable here) that numerous establishments, including hotels, forbid people from bringing in durian.  Edna had been forewarned by many about the horrors of durian, but she didn’t find the smell offensive either.   Now, on to the taste test.  I previously told Edna that durian tastes like a sweet custard that has an onion-like aftertaste.  If one is a fan of stinky French cheeses, durian is pretty manageable.

After paying $3 for the smallest (1.5 kg) durian we could find (note: durian is very heavy and, therefore, usually very expensive here in the U.S. due to shipping costs — usually around $8-10/lb. — again, you can buy durian in your local Chinatown), we had our fruit stall lady expertly cut through the thick, spikey husk to reveal the cells that hold the yellow flesh.  After finding a park bench far away from the masses, we proceeded to dig into the flesh.  Edna’s reaction?  “I was surprised by how pleasant I found the taste to be.”  While Edna liked durian overall and ate her fair share of that particular durian we bought, she shared my similar view that, while not repulsed by it, durian is not a favorite that should be sought out.

Last but not least is my favorite: mangosteen.  Mangosteen looks like a little purple eggplant with a giant green top.  After cutting through the dark reddish-purple outer rind, a white flesh is revealed.  The taste can only be described as magical — both sweet and slightly tart, as if a Meyer lemon mated with a peach.

Edna quickly declared that this was her favorite after trying it for the first time.  We ended up buying another kilogram (for a mere $2) the next time we saw a fruit vendor, and I’m sure Edna will have a few more before she leaves the region on her extended stay.

Unfortunately, it is very hard to find fresh mangosteen here in the U.S.  The fruit is known to harbor fruit flies that are dangerous to U.S. crops and, thus, imports are severly restricted.  Those mangosteens that do make it into the country are extremely expensive (can you say $25-45/lb?) and not as good.  Irradiated mangosteens from Thailand are usually bruised from shipping.  Some importers have started bringing in mangosteen grown in Puerto Rico.  For most of us here, we have to resort the canned and frozen variety, which just aren’t the same as the fresh ones.

Holiday in Cambodia

June 30, 2010 2 comments

As J. Frankfurter mentioned earlier, we have been somewhat delinquent in posting as of late.  Not to make excuses, but life has been very busy for both of us these past couple of weeks.  I’ve been preoccupied with trying to clear my docket because I will soon leave for a two-week vacation in Cambodia.

With my trusty cameras (yes, plural) and shiny new netbook in tow, I plan to blog parts of my trip — focusing on the culinary portions, naturally.  Keep your fingers crossed for WiFi.

Just to give you a sneak peak, I will now provide a primer on Cambodian food.  Khmer cuisine is similar to the cuisines of Thailand and Vietnam but often characterized, rightly or wrongly, as less favorful and less spicy than that of its neighbors.  Khmer cuisine has also been influenced by India (see: curry), France (see: baguette, coffee and pâté) and China (see: noodles and/or everything in Asia).

Rice is, of course, a staple part of the Khmer diet.  Many Cambodian dishes are flavored with prahok, a pungent fermented fish paste, as well as kroeung, a spice paste that blends ingredients such as lemon grass, kaffir lime zest and leaves, galangal, tumeric, ginger, garlic, shallots and chilis.

National dishes that use prahok and kroeung include samlor kako (a soup heavy on the vegetables), samlor machu (a sour soup flavored with tamarind that is similar to Vietnamese canh chua) and amok (some protein — likely fish, chicken or tofu — steamed in a coconut curry in banana leaves). 

Here in New York, where we can pretty much get whatever we want, whenever we want, there is a striking absence of Cambodian restaurants in comparison to the numerous Thai and Vietnamese options.  Is it because Cambodia lost an entire generation due to the Khmer Rouge, leaving few to pass on the knowledge of Cambodian cuisine to the surviving generations?  Or is it because Americans are not familiar enough with Cambodia in general to accept its food?  Matthew Fishbane has an interesting article over on Salon about the lack of Cambodian food in the U.S.

My travel companion for the trip (hereinafter, “Edna Krabappel”) has never been to Southeast Asia.  In addition to write-ups about Khmer cuisine as prefaced above, future posts will also include her reaction to trying certain fruits native to the area including jackfruit, rambutan, longan, sour sop, mangosteen and the ever infamous durian (J. Frankfurter’s favorite; his wife has a differing opinion).  Let’s just see if Ms. Krabappel is brave enough to try the deep-fried tarantula!