Durians can be eaten at various degrees of ripeness. Some people, mostly Thais, actually prefer their durians slightly under ripe, like those who prefer their bananas green. Others, notably the Indonesians, often prefer a durian so ripe it's developed an alcoholic bite. I like neither. I chase that perfection of flavor when the sweetness and caramel-stink are at their peak and the texture is smooth as silk and sticky as cream cheese. Here are our tips and tricks to picking the perfect durian.
That Heavenly SmellDurian is odoriferous, and all the more so when fully ripe. However, the outside of a perfectly ripe durian doesn't have the same sharp pungency as the inside. Since the shell of the durian doesn't contain the same volatiles as the flesh, if the durian hasn't been broken open yet, either by force of falling or a knife, the odor should remain mostly sealed inside. This varies slightly with the thickness of the shell.
If the durian has no smell at all, chances are it's not ripe. If it smells really strong, chances are it's overripe. When you get your nose close to the fruit, you should experience a low level, earthy yet sulfurous smell, like fresh cut grass and scrambled eggs. The famous, nauseating stink that wafts up and down streets is the result of opened durians, overripe durians and durian waste in the vendor's trash bins. So choose a durian that smells freshly stinky.
2. The FallWhen ripe, durians fall off the tree. That's why durian orchards have such a bad rap - every year, several people are injured or die from falling durians (see 2012's victims).
If the durian fell within the last day, chances are that it's perfect. Some people believe that allowing a durian to sit for up to 12 hours improves the flavor (and drug-like effects), but it's up to personal tastes.
Ask the vendor if the durian fell, and how long ago. If the person selling the durians also owns the trees, chances are they know exactly what time of day or night that particular durian fell, and from which tree. If not, they'll also know exactly how long that particular durian has been sitting around at their stall.
Knowing if the durian fell is a good start, but immature durians sometimes get knocked down due to strong winds, rain, animals, or a natural culling process when the tree has too many fruits. In many countries, durians are purposefully cut off the tree days before it would have fallen, for transportation or ease of harvest. All durian vendors outside of Thailand know that the best durians are those that fell, and many have developed tricks to convince you the durian fell fully ripened, when really it's been sitting under a tarp with calcium carbide. Read on.
3. The Joint
Mind, the stem should still be fully attached and fresh looking, with a green hue coming through the brown skin. When you scrape the stem with your thumb nail, the interior should be a grass green. If the stem is shriveled, or dark brown, the durian is days old, and chances are it was cut early and has been ripening under a tarp. It may be ripe and taste okay, but the flavor is always better from durians that fall on their own.
Some durian vendors do sneaky things like cutting the stem off at the joint and then whittling it to make it look like it fell off on it's own. If the durian is missing it's stem completely, or the stem looks both old and messed up, they'll tell you it's because the durian fell on the stem. Chances are it didn't. Other than chewing them out for being nasty cheaters (not usually a good idea) all you can do is be aware and reject any durians that seem sub par.
4. Shake It BabyOne of the easiest ways to tell if a durian is ripe is to hold it to your ear and shake it. The flesh of a ripened durian is soft, which allows the seeds to bang around inside the shell like a maracca filled with gak.
If the seed is rattling around with no resistance, chances are the durian is overripe. If you can't hear or feel anything at all, the durian flesh is hard. You might like it that way. No judgement.
5. Thump ItIn Thailand, the preferred method is to whack the durian a few times using a rubber tipped stick. When we were given a tour of Sunshine Durian Factory, there was a team wandering about with matching green shirts, their sticks flailing. It looked so strange and out of place in a beeping, moaning forklift zone that I couldn't help but giggle.
Most of us don't have rubber tipped sticks, but in many other countries the side of a knife works well enough. If the durian sounds slightly hollow, it means the flesh has softened enough to recede from the shell, and the durian is at least edible. Various levels of hollowness correlate to levels of softness. Know what you like.
5. The Tooth Pick TestI don't think this method would go over well as a customer buying durian, but it's run of the mill among durian sellers in Vietnam. Using a very thin, needle sharp knife, the vendor stabs the durian, piercing the shell, and then examines the knife. It's a lot like checking on a baking cake to see if it's ready, but opposite - a trace of goop on the knife blade means it's ready, while a clean blade means it still needs a few days.
A lot of vendors and distributors will also lick the knife to test for sweetness, so as to assure quality control. When I first realized that probably every durian I ate in Vietnam had been pricked by a saliva-whetted knife, I kind of felt grossed out. Then I got over it.
6. Scrape ItUsing the back of your nails, gently brush along the spines. It should make a rasping noise, sort of like the Mexican Scraper instrument. You can also use a stick if you don't like the feeling of the thorns rattling your nails, in which case you have essentially turned your durian into a percussion instrument. Cool!
Once again, you're listening for a sort of hollow reverberation that indicates some space between the seed and the shell. If only a dull clicking sound of thorns hitting the stick/your nails, don't eat it. If it makes a low rasping noise, like one of those cool wooden frogs, the durian is probably ripe.
7. Thumb PressThis is possibly my favorite method, because it never lies. Position your thumb over one of the swollen sections of the durian, where the fruit is. Maneuver your thumb in between the thorns and press down. If the durian is ripe, the shell will actually give a little under pressure, like a hard sponge. If it's not ripe, you might as well be pressing on concrete. It's easy to tell the difference!
This technique is awesome, but may not work for all durians. Some durians have extremely thick shells that may not give at all under any kind of pressure, despite being ripe. We're still testing it out, and will let you know the results.
Now, the bad news. None of these techniques will work on a frozen durian. Those of you buying your durians frozen from the Asian grocery will probably never find a properly ripened durian. Most likely, you have purchased a Monthong durian from Thailand, which was harvested at 80% ripeness, painted with ripening agents, allowed to sit for 3 to 5 days, and then frozen at -40 degrees celsius, destroying the cell walls. Not only was your durian not ripe when it was harvested, it has not a shred of a chance of ripening now.
However, there are a few ways to pick a more ripe durian, even when frozen. I'll share this information in a future post.
Ah Durian - so sweet, so stinky, so perfectly delicious.
Got any good methods for choosing a durian? Please tell us about it by commenting below!