“Don’t worry,” my friend George said, “your parents will definitely get the chance to taste some Malaysian durian.”
I acted like the durian tasting was for my parents, but I knew that it was most important to me. This was my chance to share with my Mom and Dad what I find so special about durian, and why I keep coming back to this country instead of going home.
This is my fifth summer split between Thailand and Malaysia, and at this point durian is a defining character of my adult life. I eat durian more days of the year than not. When I’m not eating durian, I’m reading about it, or writing about it, or pestering my favorite Youtubers to taste it (I gave a Musang King to Hank Green).
If you were my parent, this obsession was and probably still is at best a little bit strange and at worst worrying.
After all, I’ve pursued durian rather than a career.
If my parents ever worried about my future, in addition to my immediate safety, they didn’t vocalize it. If I were to define their parenting style, I would quote Thumper from that semi-ancient Disney movie, Bambi.
“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.”
They’ve always let me make my own decisions and mistakes without a peep, from quitting journalism school to planning my wedding at 19 to coming to Southeast Asia to spend a year (and then years) eating durian.
When I came home and brought durian into the house, they kept the complaints to an impressive minimum.
But I’m an eldest child. I crave parental approval. And tacit tolerance is not the same thing.
I just really wanted them to like durian, and to like Malaysia, and to understand why I come back again and again.
We spent our durian tasting day with George, whose durian orchard is the last stop on the Malaysia Durian Appreciation Tour. His durians won’t drop until July, so we went to a nearby durian stall.
The stall is along Highway 68, an older road running parallel to the main freeway artery (E8) that heads east from Kuala Lumpur. When we arrived it was mid-day, the sky whitewashed with heat, and the road deserted.
The durians were piled on a rough table under a square blue umbrella, their stems wrapped in banana leaves to fend off the dehydration that would cause them to rupture and split prematurely.
There weren’t very many of them, because it was March and still technically the off-season, but they looked good and fresh.
When the vendor, Mr. Loo, cracked one open, it was a perfectly plump pale amber, like caramelized cream, with the D24’s typical wide crack between the dual pods. I leaned in with my camera and started excitedly taking pictures. I thought I saw Mom and Dad look at each other.
After reading my blog for years, they were finally behind the scenes in Malaysia. What were they thinking?
I invited them to take a piece. This was the moment.
I tried to see it all through their eyes. The heat. The heavy buzz of cicadas. The unintelligible Chinese conversation that George was having with Mr. Loo. The weathered red folding table, the top heavily nicked and scratched from thorns.
And the alien-shaped fruit sitting in front of them, it’s gooey interior emitting a smell that was ambrosial to me, but who knows what to them.
Dad took the first piece. I guess he was feeling confident, since the night before he actually chose durian ice cream for his dessert at Pasar Seni, and then liked it.
“This one is definitely garlicky,” he commented.
“It just tastes like durian to me,” Mom countered. She should know. Mom doesn’t like garlic.
In fact, at one point in my childhood Dad tried to lower either his cholesterol or his blood pressure (the latter would be ironic) by eating so much garlic he began to smell like it. Then one morning I woke up and Dad was sleeping on the couch, and that was the end of the garlic cure.
But I could see what Dad was talking about. D24 does have an edge to it, a slight oily heat and lingering sulfur. I wouldn’t call it garlic exactly, but slightly savory in a way that you can taste in the back of your mouth.
Dad said he preferred the one we had in Thailand. “What was that called again?”
But we had yet to taste everybody’s favorite Malaysian durian — the famous Musang King.
The Musang King was small, and since George ordered it I was a little afraid to ask how much it cost. This was out-of-season Musang King, after all.
But after the D24, I really wanted to see how my parents would compare the two durians.
“This one is sweeter,” Dad said. “It doesn’t have that garlicky thing.”
It was sweeter than the D24, and I would bet it had a higher sugar content. At the same time, it had a little touch of bitter, the way milk chocolate is sweet with a touch of that earthy bitter cocoa.
“This one has a little of the bitter taste going on,” I told my Dad.
He tasted it again, and then his face lit up. “Oh yeah! I can taste that.”
“It still just tastes like durian to me,” my mom said. “I’m still surprised that I kind of like it.”
When the durian was gone, we stood up and washed our hands at the small sink.
Later, my mom commented on how normal it all felt – just driving down the highway and stopping at a small roadside stand like we were picking up strawberries or stopping for ice cream. She said it was cool to be in a place where stopping for durian was normal, like she got to be part of the culture here.
That’s one of the things I like about durian too.
I’m not sure my parents will ever totally get my infatuation, or the way I don’t mind the heat or the crazy driving tactics. But it’s okay.
They made the effort to come here and eat durian with me. I think I have parental approval.
There are a few small durian stalls here at the entrance to the Freeway Ramp. During the season they have more fruit, and sometimes jackfruit too. It’s a good spot to check if you are looking for out-of-season durians.