Friday, June 11, 2010
I finally understand durian
That picture on the left, friends, is of durian. I should have posed the fruit next to something so you could see just how big a durian is. Each one of those bad boys is about the size of a human head.
I’m on Penang, an island in the Strait of Malacca just off the coast of the Malay Peninsula, and it’s my first day of a press trip to Malaysia, where my job is to eat the food and eventually write about it.
It is not a hardship posting.
This is my first time back in Southeast Asia since I left Thailand in 1997, after having lived there for five years. Malaysia’s not Thailand, but this is my third or fourth time in this country — and at least my third time to Penang — so it feels like something of a homecoming.
Living in the tropics made me into something of a fruit snob, and I’m eager to rejuvenate my soul a bit by gorging on the stuff while I’m here.
This morning before breakfast I availed myself of the basket of fruit in my room and ate a mango, and then at breakfast I had some pineapple and papaya and dragonfruit (either dragonfruit has no flavor or I haven't had a good one yet).
To be honest, durian wasn’t high on my list as something to try again. It’s a famously malodorous fruit — banned in many hotels and airplanes — with a fragrance similar to sulfurous, rotting sewage.
People say durian smells like hell but tastes like heaven, but that hadn’t been my experience. I’d had it twice before, once in Thailand and once in Cambodia, and both times it had the agreeable texture of a really good avocado, but it tasted like a toned down version of what it smelled like, only sweeter. Like sweet rotten sulfur.
Honestly, as bad as that sounds I didn’t hate it the way many people do, but given all the things you can put in your mouth, why invite durian in there?
But people I know who truly love durian — New York Malaysiaphile chef Zak Pelaccio among them — learned to do so in Malaysia. My friend Thomas Fuller, a great guy and durian lover who was based in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, for awhile while working for the International Herald Tribune, said that Malaysians have a saying about Thai durian — that it’s like the Thai people, universally sweet and all the same.
That’s not a very nice thing to say, but I wanted to find out what all the fuss was about. Was Malaysian durian really that great?
Right now just happens to be the height of durian season. So this morning, after a second breakfast of charcoal-grilled bread that we dipped in dahl and fish curry, plus coddled eggs with soy sauce and white pepper, all eaten at a Mamak food stall — that’s a stall run by Indian Muslims — when we walked to a nearby open-air market, we tried the durian.
And it was better than any durian I’d had before. Absolutely it was. Sweet and rich, aromatic and deeply satisfying. In many ways it was like a raw scallop, something that I also love, in that as much as I enjoyed it, a few bites was enough. So I gave the rest to one of our guides, A'dzimah Ahmad Ghazali, a nice Malay woman who had told me she could eat three whole durians in one sitting.
Durian out of the way, I insisted that my fellow travelers — the power food writing couple of Bob Lape and Joanna Pruess — have some longgong.
That’s longgong, on the right, in front of the Coca-Cola Light can. I just took that picture in my room here at the luxurious Shangri-La Rasa Sayang.
When I refer to longgong, people who think they know all about tropical fruit but don’t often correct me and tell me it’s pronounced longan. Longan’s different. A longan’s sort of a soulless brown shadow of a lychee.
Longgong has a smoother, drier texture than a longan and a bright acidity reminiscent of citrus. It has a flavor not unlike grapefruit, but with a somewhat floral bass note. It’s awesome, not like a stupid, boring longan.
We went on to sample some pickled fruit, including papaya, mango and salak (also called snake fruit, I’ll get back to that if I ever see a fresh one because they’re great in a weird, sort of off-putting way). After that we had a first lunch of Hokkien dim sum and then toured the mansion of Cheong Fatt Tze, I think to let the food go down before our second lunch, at an Indian place called Ananda Bawan.
Malaysia is an ethnic hodgepodge, but the three biggest groups (at least on the Malay peninsula; it’s different in the two Malaysian states on Borneo) are Malays, Chinese (mostly Hokkien, but with plenty of Hainanese, Teo Chiew, Hakka and Cantonese), and Indians, mostly Tamils.
That’s a big part of the official, government-mandated Malaysian Zeitgeist, their cultural plurality. I think that’s part of the basis of their insult of Thais and their durians — Thais are all Thais, and thus implicitly boring.
Of course, that’s patently false. About a third of the Thai population is Lao, ethnic Malays live in the southern provinces. The north (which also has an array of hill tribes) and west of the country have Shan and Mon people, and there’s a very healthy scattering of Chinese people thoughout the country, particularly in Bangkok and the South.
I used to think the durian insult was more grave than that — that it was meant to imply that Thais were shallow, insipid and boring, just like their durians — but today I’m under the impression that the intention is less deep than that.
Anyway, since we’d had Chinese food for first lunch, for second lunch, we naturally had Tamil food.
We had a classic banana leaf lunch, with curries and dahl and rasam and roasted chicken all served with rice on a banana leaf, which is to be eaten with your hands (or, more properly, your hand — the right one, which is used to conduct public business, while the left one is for more private activities.
From there we toured a Thai Buddhist temple and a Burmese Buddhist temple across the street from that and then went on a mission to get Bob a new recording device, as the one he brought with him was misbehaving.
Penang is actually an important center for assembly of electronic equipment, and it’s also quite wealthy, meaning electronic recording devices are easily found at any shopping mall.
So we went to the Guerney shopping mall and wandered around while Bob went to the Sony center.
The shopping mall, as malls are, was a great place for people watching, and there really was a great ease with which the Chinese, Malays and Indians all seemed to interact together. It reminded me very much of Brooklyn, actually.
The Chinese make up the majority of Penang’s population, but the country as a whole is mostly Malay. That means they’re Muslim. Although they’re fairly mellow Muslims, politically Malaysia likes to project itself as a leader of the Muslim world, and when it comes to issues such as Israel it tends to align itself with countries such as Syria.
So I was delighted to see quite risqué displays in the shopping center. I was so delighted, in fact, that I thought I’d display a picture of one, which you can see above on the right.
From there we went back to the hotel to recover from the heat and rest in advance of our cooking demonstration tonight. But I decided to update my blog instead. And I will finish this entry with a picture from the market of a cow’s head.