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Scouring Malaysia for a whiff of ripe durian


I haven’t traveled much. I have never been to Europe, nor glimpsed the Rockies. For most of my life, I haven’t seen myself as someone with either the guts, or the resources to travel. I have, however, always been an enthusiastic armchair traveler. Divorce though, has a way of transforming a person, and all that started to change when the dust settled on mine. I started out tentatively, testing my mettle on trips to Montreal and New York with friends. I threw in an all-inclusive beach trip; it wasn’t my thing. When I returned from a solo trip to Chicago, I knew I was hooked on real travel. And then my boyfriend, the Egyptian, invited me to attend a wedding in Malaysia.
Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur
“Durian!” I thought, still heavily influenced by my devout watching of chef Anthony Bourdain’s travel show, No Reservations. In season two, Bourdain traveled to Indonesia to teach me about the so-called King of Fruits native to Southeast Asia.

“Its taste can only be described as indescribable,” he says. “Afterwards, your breath will smell as if you’ve been French kissing your dead grandmother.”

Obviously, I said yes to the invitation.

Despite my insistence that procuring a durian was paramount to the success of our trip, the Egyptian remained unconvinced. Fortunately, we fell into conversation with the groom’s aunt at the wedding reception.

“Have you tried durian yet?” she wanted to know. The Egyptian’s ears perked up as she went on to tell us about the durian tree in her back yard. When the durians are ripe, she told us, watch out. You do not want a spiky-husked durian fruit landing on your head when it falls. Something about this conversation turned the Egyptian from marginally interested to active participant in my durian quest. Maybe it was the element of danger. By God, he would not rest until we tore into a durian.
090115Penang3 (3)
By the time we got to Penang, however, I’d given up. We had already been through Kuala Lumpur and Melaka without spotting any durian for sale. We arrived at our resort on Penang Island after a trying flight from Kuala Lumpur – we’d both come down with a case of Turista following breakfast that morning – and were starving. Driven out into the streets by the bizarre selection of Western foods such as chicken fingers and tater tots at the hotel restaurant, we thankfully stumbled on Medan Selera Mutiara (Hillside Food Court), a short walk away. An open-air food court, the perimeter is lined with stalls selling cheap and delicious Malaysian street food, with tables in the centre. We found our durian man and his cart on the street behind the food court along with others who sold exotic fruits like rambutan, longan and lychee, and another offering hamburgers topped with eggs late into the night.

090115IMG_0502 (4)“You want sweet, or bitter?” he asked when we mustered up the courage to approach the next evening. Sweet, we agreed, not sure if it was the right decision. Guidance was not forthcoming. The durian seller, and the men hanging around his stall grinned at us.

The durian man split open our fruit with a thwack of his knife, removed the pods of pale yellow flesh from the husk, and handed them to us in a plastic container. Excited, we headed over to the food court. I was already a curiosity there with my pale skin and bare limbs but when we settled down with our box of durian all eyes turned to us. I got the feeling that watching foreigners try durian for the first time was a familiar spectacle at Hillside Food Court.

I didn’t feel much pressure as I took my first bite of custardy flesh because this thing wasn’t so bad after all. In fact, it was great, I thought. What was everyone going on about? The Egyptian concurred. On second bite, I felt myself becoming confused by what was going on in my mouth. And the third bite? Outright gagging, with an aftertaste of onions. The teenage girls at the next table giggled. I giggled, too.

The Egyptian, a man known to cook chicken gizzards, fared better than I did, but the durian won. The fruit is widely banned from hotels and public transit in Southeast Asia due to its pungent smell, and our hotel was no exception. Nevertheless, we snuck our leftovers back to our room despite the stern warnings posted clearly at the elevator. The Egyptian hates to waste food.

“Its stank just won’t leave you for the rest of the day,” Bourdain wisecracks on the Indonesia episode of No Reservations, and he was not joking. Despite the plastic container, which we stored in our fridge, our room filled with durian vapours as we slept. In the morning, I swallowed my vitamins with bottled water that had turned durian flavoured in the refrigerator overnight.

That day, a gap in our planning forced us to move to a different hotel up the street. The Egyptian by now agreed that durian could not be kept in our room but since we’d endured the repercussions of having saved it, we decided to try to eat the rest before checking into our new room. We checked out, then found a bench outside where we could tackle round two while enjoying the morning sun.

Durian, PenangThe Egyptian dug the container out of his backpack.

“I bet you guys can’t guess what’s in here,” he said to some Singaporeans standing nearby. Our bench turned out to be a bus stop.

“Sandwich!” one woman exclaimed.

“No,” said The Egyptian, “DURIAN!”

A second woman performed the universal sign for choking and ran several metres down the street in mock horror.

“Ohhhh, durian!” sang the others in perfect unison. Apparently, Singaporeans love durian. The tiny country imports 23,000 tonnes of it annually.

The Egyptian tucked into a piece of durian with exaggerated relish for the benefit of both me and our new friends.

“Ahhh,” said one of the men, “very rare that a Caucasian knows how to eat durian!” The Egyptian and I laughed; he’d certainly never been mistaken for a white guy before. With that, the Singaporeans waved and boarded their bus to Georgetown.

090115Hillside Food Court Penang (3)We ate lunch and dinner at Medan Selera Mutiara every day and the hawker who ran our favourite stall often joined us at our table. The men, both Muslim, talked Islam and politics while I sank into happiness. I often wonder if I would have been brave enough to go to Malaysia to eat durian if I hadn’t spent so much time circling the world from my couch, absorbing Anthony Bourdain’s colourful descriptions everywhere I went with him. Although my inspiration was inextricably linked to television, eating durian for myself in Penang proved so much more profound than I ever could have imagined as an armchair traveler.

More by this author on her blog at https://pinkcollar.wordpress.com/

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