Tag Archives: durian

Over the Moon(cake)

1 Oct

September 19th was the Mid-Autumn Festival, celebrated by Chinese communities with lanterns and the giving and eating of mooncakes, round pastries traditionally filled with sweet bean or lotus pastes which could be considered the Chinese equivalent of fruitcake.

Durian Snowskin Mooncake

Behold, the most Asian thing I’ve eaten

The gift-giving aspect of mooncakes has led to something of an arms race in the packaging and novelty-flavor factor. Mooncakes come in resplendent boxes (we’re using one of them, actually a little chest of drawers, to store Mr. SOK’s cuff links) and are offered in ever more exotic flavors; non-Chinese franchises like StarbucksHäagen-Dazs, and Godiva have gotten in on the action with modern offerings like chocolate fillings and ice cream mooncakes.

The original “modern” mooncake is the snowskin mooncake, which is actually a cousin of mochi ice cream: an ice cream filling is surrounded by a soft, slightly sticky wrapper made with glutinous rice flour. Although buying your own mooncake is kind of like throwing yourself a shower, I had to get the Hello Kitty durian snowskin mooncake, which I think is the most Asian food item I’ve had.

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Baby Turtles and Catfish

25 Oct

Last month, I tagged along with Tom on a trip to a BP-sponsored turtle sanctuary, Ma’Daerah, in Terengganu, on Malaysia’s east coast. The trip was part of a community service project by the interns at his office, who chaperoned kids from Nur Salam (a shelter for at-risk kids, many of them refugees); for a lot of the kids, it was their first trip outside of an urban environment. We got lucky and saw two hatchings, plus two nesting turtles, who were less than amused to have their egg-laying observed by a gaggle of humans. Baby turtles are probably one of the cutest marine creatures out there, which makes it all the more heart-breaking that the survival rate is a shockingly low 1 in 1,000. Having no natural defenses, they’re basically adorable snacks for marine predators. To make matters worse, turtle eggs are considered a delicacy in many countries, including Malaysia, where, shockingly, there is still no ban on the sale of eggs. (Not to worry: no turtles nor their eggs were harmed in the writing of this blog.)

Baby turtle!

Ma’Daerah is close enough to reach by car from KL, and along the way, we stopped for dinner in Temerloh, which is famous for its freshwater fish, especially patin, a kind of catfish. The rest stop we parked at — don’t laugh: some of the best food in Malaysia can be found at rest stops — had stall after stall offering ikan patin masak tempoyak, or patin cooked with tempoyak.

Ikan patin masak tempoyak. Tastes better than it looks.

What’s tempoyak, you might ask? It’s fermented durian. Seeing as durian is already quite pungent on its own, I couldn’t imagine what it would smell like after fermentation. Judging from this dish, though, tempoyak might be actually be less potent than durian in its fresh glory. The broth was rich, with a mellow funkiness, and I can say that the patin is justifiably famous: the meat is delicate but savory, without any of the muddiness one normally associates with catfish. 

The communal pot of patin soup

So if you’re ever in Malaysia during turtle-hatching season, go visit a turtle sanctuary, coo over some adorable (if doomed) baby turtles, and stop in Temerloh for some patin with tempoyak. You’ll be glad you did.

Durian Popcorn

10 Jul

Last week, I was clearing out our cupboards and came across a bag of goodies we got from some mall event. It was full of nostalgic snack foods — nostalgic, that is, for Malaysians. There were a lot of garishly colored tidbits that seemed relatively edible. When I asked Tom if he wanted to take it in to his office (for the kids, of course), his response was, “Is any of this actually food?”

Among these was a bag of something labeled “durian popcorn.” First, it wasn’t popcorn; it was some sort of corn puff, like Kix. Second, it was disgusting. Like spit-it-out disgusting. Now, I am on record as enjoying durian, both in fresh form and as a component of things like donuts and cream puffs. These crunchy monstrosities did not taste like durian, they tasted like sewage. Or maybe putrefying gasoline. I can’t deny that durian has some of these elements, but in somehow a good way. Although I will have to give this to durian popcorn: it’s the foulest thing I’ve put in my mouth in a long time. Unfortunately, in our haste to get this abomination out of the house, I forgot to take a photo. I think there was something innocuous on the package like corn.

To summarize: avoid durian popcorn like the plague it is, and go have some real durian instead.

Durian, The Cheese of Fruits

19 Aug
Durian halves

Durian being packaged for consumption.

Durian is probably the world’s most notorious tropical fruit, and the only food substance banned from public spaces solely for its aroma. You’ve probably heard about durian from that Bizarre Foods show or Anthony Bourdain or Fear Factor. Right now it’s durian season, so it’s everywhere in KL.

And yes, it’s really that smelly.

It’s so smelly that when the doors of a supermarket open, you can tell if they’re selling durian, even though everything’s on ice and the durian itself is packaged in plastic and the husks immediately whisked away. It’s so smelly that we put our saran-wrapped package of durian in two plastic bags, and then in a crisper by itself, and it still stunk up the entire fridge.

So what does it smell like? Nothing you’ve smelled before. And it’s a scent with a particular unctuousness that coats your entire nasal cavity, overwhelming all of your scent receptors. But since I can’t embed scent files into this blog (yet), let me try to give you an idea. Imagine that plastic bag of onions and garlic that someone forgot about in the kitchen cabinet, only to be discovered by you on a hot summer’s afternoon. Then douse it in gasoline. Add a weird burning sensation in the back of your throat, and I think that about covers it. Durian on the street often has a top note of rotting meat, but thankfully refrigeration tames that particular dimension.

Now, I had always believed that it was the durian rind that was so stinky, and the fruit inside was, well, normal-fruit-smelling. Nope. Durian flesh is almost as bad as whole durian. But people loooove this stuff, so it must have some redeeming value, right? And the only way to find out…

The part of the durian you eat.

As with so many of these cult foods, there are rules. 1) No drinking (causes bloating). 2) Eat with mangosteen to counteract “heatiness.” 3) Don’t eat it on a date, because you’ll be burping up durian the whole night. I didn’t get as much of the heating, but Tom (the reason I’m in Malaysia in the first place) says it makes him burn up.

Much like the aroma, the flavor of durian is practically indescribable. On the first piece, the smell is almost overwhelming, as well as the cognitive dissonance of eating a sweet fruit that has the mouthfeel of custard and the smell of…well, durian. Then you have the second piece, and you start enjoying it; your scent receptors have given up, and more of a burnt-sugar flavor and a pleasant bitterness come through. Then, just as quickly, you’re done: I got through the third but I couldn’t take any more after that. It’s the least fruit-like fruit I’ve ever eaten.

Tom described it as a fruit that tastes like meat, but I think a better analogy is cheese — the super-stinky soft ones, like the Epoisses de Bourgogne, which, like durian, is banned on public transportation. You know, the ones that are half-melted even when you buy them, and smell like a teenage boy’s running shoes left in a hot gym locker for a month. Both cheese and durian are creamy, um, aromatic, and have intensely devoted connoisseurs. I’m planning to take full advantage of this durian season.