THE KING AND QUEEN OF FRUITS: THE DURIAN AND MANGOSTEEN
The King of Fruits: Tastes Like Heaven, Smells Like Hell
This Southeast Asia’s native is most highly prized and carries the title of the King of Fruits. The durian is the only fruit banned from airline cabins, hotels and public transportation. The reason? Its overwhelming, disgusting smell. A delicacy to many Asians, durian is more of a biological weapon for most Europeans.
What does it smell like? Well, if you have ever tried surströmming, a northern Swedish delicacy of herring fermented for months, first in barrels and later in cans, you will find the odors analogous. Others compare durian’s stench to a mix of rotten onions, overripe cheese and sewage.
The name “durian” comes from the Malay duri, or thorn – the fruit has a thick, thorny skin. Inside are five segments enclosing two or three portions of cream-colored and textured flesh, each wrapped around a single large seed. Durian is very expensive, for it is difficult to grow (the soil must have just the right amount of sulphur and no saltwater) and hazardous to pick (the fall of a heavy rugby ball-sized durian on a picker’s head from a 20m-high tree may be lethal). If it breaks open on the ground, rhinos, tigers, monkeys and even elephants fight over the spoils. Durian is believed to be an aphrodisiac – the Malays say that “when durians are down, sarongs are up”.
Naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace in his Malay Archipelago (1869), described durian as follows: “A rich butter-like custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but intermingled with it, come wafts of flavour that call to remind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, brown sherry, and other incongruities… To eat durians is a new sensation, worth a voyage to the east to experience.” Well, the latter is definitely a highly subjective opinion, for the “royal stinker” is nothing but an acquired taste, and most Europeans bail out on it.
The Queen of Fruits for the Queen of England
As legend has it, Queen Victoria of Britain was once told about a divinely delicious purple fruit, which grew in far away Southeast Asia. The Queen made a promise to bestow knighthood on anyone who would bring it to her but all efforts failed. The reason was that in the 19th century, the journey from Southeast Asia took months and the delicate fruit would invariably go bad before reaching Britain.
Like durian, the mangosteen is a Southeast Asian native and bears fruits at the same time. While the “king of fruits” is considered by the Chinese to be “heaty” due to its rich and heavy flavour, the mangosteen posses just the opposite, “cooling” properties, having the most exquisite juicy white flesh, sweet yet slightly acid. All this is the reason why the mangosteen is honoured with the high position of the Queen among fruits of the region.
The mangosteen is high in calcium, phosphorous, vitamin B and C. The thick woody shell of the purplish-black mangoosteen encloses several segments of flesh. It can be open by squeezing gently on either side, but be careful – if sprayed, the juice of its skin will stain your clothes for good. If the skin does not pull apart easily, the fruit is not ripe so wait another day or so.
Russian writer Ivan Goncharov, who had undertaken a long voyage to the Southern Seas in the 19th century, first tasted the mangosteen during his ship’s stopover in Singapore, and described it in The Frigate Pallada as follows: “I cut the fruit <…> Cooling, fresh, delicate, and sweet, with a slight sourness. It was a mangosteen, which the English pronounce “mangusten”. The English can’t help mispronouncing words.”