Durian Desserts in Phnom Penh

The last time Rob and I visited Phnom Penh, we did the usual tourist thing and visited all the really depressing monuments to the mass genocide of the 1970's. Rob wrote one of his few yet treasured posts about the experience, a somber, philosophical article that has nothing to do with durian. This time around was a lot more fun (and a lot more durian).

My friend Jess is an English teacher in Phnom Penh. She and her Cambodian boyfriend Alex drove down to Kep last week to eat durian with me, and they were still excited enough about durian to host me and my ever buzzing durian brain. I was thrilled to see them again, not only because I really like them, but because I love hearing about the day to day operations of life in Cambodia.

View from Jess's apartment

Jess and Alex decided to show me how Cambodians use durian in local desserts. Like most people in Southeast Asia, Cambodians consider durian a dessert item and not a main meal. This may explain the astonished looks I get when I down a whole durian for dinner. But then, it's pretty unusual for blonde(ish) people like me to eat any durian at all.

Our first stop was an all vegan ice cream stall at the Russian Market (Psah Toul Tom Poung). I haven't had ice cream in.... months. Years? Not sure. And I'd never had durian ice cream.

I was so excited to pop my durian ice cream cherry (fruit puns intended). And with reason, because it was wonderful. The coolness really brought out the silky chocolate undertones of durian that I like so much. It was so good, that after my first cup I didn't even bother to try the other really intriguing fruit flavors.

Each cup cost only $1 for three small scoops, so my first cup I got jackfruit and longan, green tea, and durian on top. The jackfruit and longan turned out to be a mistake. Instead of being pureed with the coconut milk, the jackfruit was shredded into long strings. People who like gummy bears in their ice cream, like my little brother, would love this one.

Perfectly smooth durian ice cream

I, however, believe that chewy stuff has no place in things with really creamy smooth textures. This philosophy also applies to those hard, fibrous bits sometimes found around the seed of slightly under ripe or unevenly unripe durians. I hate that stuff!

So after the jackfruit flop I just got more durian. And then another scoop of durian. And then yes, another scoop of durian. Don't look astonished, it was my dinner. Because that's how I eat durian.

Ice cream isn't the only way Cambodians serve their durian. The next night Jess and I hopped on the back of Alex's motorbike and cruised off for some durian desserts. I loved getting the chance to buzz around Phnom Penh at night, feeling all secure with Alex's supervision and skilled driving. The crushing heat of the day had passed, and while the wind was still warm it felt relaxing. The whole city was lit up with points of neon and the red eyes of motorbike lights flitting through the more cumbersome traffic. I had fun trying (and epically failing) to take pictures from the back of the bike.

The most popular dessert shop in Cambodia is a table on the street laid out with ten or more large metal mixing bowls full of an unrecognizeable, sweetened goo. It's a mix-and-match affair of things we in the West would never consider combining, especially not for dessert. Creamed corn, red beans, gelatinous palm fruits, and chunks of lavender colored taro with sticky rice are ladled into a bowl and then drowned in your choice of coconut milk, condensed milk, or a sweetened durian sauce.

Each item, with toppings, costs between 1,500 riel and 2,500 riel, so somewhere around fifty cents a serving. I of course, wanted to try everything with durian sauce.

There were more than 12 bowls, so I didn't get to try everything. I did convince Alex to ask the desserts lady to let me try just a spoonful of a few things, which made the woman laugh. "She says you're new here," Alex told me. "She can tell by the way you eat and the way you take pictures of everything."  I smiled at the woman and took another picture of my bowl.

The best thing about this dessert is that not only is it all whole, healthy foods that my mom might serve for dinner (except for the palm fruit, which she's never seen), it's really veg-friendly. Unless you go for the condensed milk or one of the fried things in a baking pan, which have eggs, everything on the table is free of animal products. As far as desserts go, this one is guilt-free.

Thanks to Jess and Alex for hosting me this weekend! I had a great time getting to know Cambodia a little better and tasting the ways people here include durian in their cuisine. In my opinion, the durian makes everything taste better. But then, I liked the durian part the most, and in the future would probably skip the ice cream or the tasting table for one good, bitter cream hunk of the real stuff.

I know that some of you are hungering for  some real durian too, so here ya go:

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