Welcome to "Plate or Pass" a new series devoted to finding some of the strangest, most intriguing, and perhaps even disturbing foods the Twin Cities has to offer. Each week, we'll introduce you to a new ingredient, talk to local chefs who use it daily, and teach you how to prepare it on your own. But we're warning you: It may not be pretty.
What looks like a pine cone, pokes like a cactus, smells like death, and tastes even worse? It's none other than the durian, considered the "king of fruits" by many in Southeast Asia. Thomas Fuller of the New York Times claims to "experience overtones of hazelnut, apricot, caramelized banana and egg custard" in the durian while others -- including Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods -- take one bite and vomit.
Durians, which can grow up to 12 inches long and weigh anywhere from two to seven pounds, simply fall to the ground when they're ripe, so most commercial farmers hang nets around their properties to avoid being knocked unconscious. If the size isn't enough to knock you out, the smell certainly is. Durians smell so bad that most hotels and public transit systems across Southeast Asia have banned them from their premises.
Beyond the durian's pokey exterior lie parallel chunks of yellow flesh. Don't be fooled by its designation as a fruit; if smelling like a roadkill dumpster weren't enough of a deterrent, a full-sized durian contains upwards of 1,500 fatty calories.
We first stumbled upon the durian while perusing United Noodle in Seward. There they were, huddled together in a spiky, frozen mass, patiently waiting for another curious Minnesotan to take one home, crack it open, and immediately throw it out the window. United Noodle sells whole durians for around $3 per pound, as well as frozen flesh for those uninterested in being stabbed by large fruits. We opted for the flesh.
While waiting for the flesh to defrost, We took a trip to Pho 79 in Uptown to taste their durian smoothie. The smoothie is prepared with sweetened condensed milk, 2% milk, ice, tapioca pearls, and durian flesh. Though durian flesh is a creamy yellow, the smoothie was pale green in color. The first sip didn't taste particularly good, but it wasn't nearly as repulsive as we anticipated. The consistency was what won us over -- the smoothie was perfectly thick and creamy. Unfortunately, that wasn't enough to counterbalance the flavor.
Midway through our first round with the durian, Pho 79 employee Ju Phan approached the table. "Do you like it?," he asked. We said yes. After all, we didn't dislike it. "Do you eat durian often?" we asked him. He nodded with enthusiasm. "My kid cannot eat it," he said, plugging his nose. "It's stinky. It's good, though."
Phan said he buys most of his durian across the street from Pho 79 at Truong Thanh Grocery Store. Though there weren't any whole durians available there, we found a few varieties of durian candy. Just under $2 buys you a bag of rotten-smelling candy morsels that taste kind of like caramel, but mostly like socks.
Our day with durian was almost done. There was only one thing left -- the durian flesh itself. Removed from its plastic wrapper, the flesh looked like larvae and responded to the touch like something in a state of decay, but the texture was just a portent of the flavor to come: curdled milk, rotten eggs, cottage cheese, wet garbage, and a dash of sugar.
For us, durian was like the evil ex-lover of the exotic fruit world -- it made us queasy and filled us with regret, but we kept returning for more, thinking the next bite would be better. It never got better. The durian wants to make you suffer.
Durian lovers of the world, we salute you. If only our five senses were as finely calibrated.
Verdict: We'll pass. Might we recommend Pho 79's avocado milkshake instead?