I Heart Durian/The Pleasures of the Flesh/Durians are Sublime
In 2000, I lived in Medan on a street called Jalan Malaka. One of the nearby main streets was used for selling durians in the evening. During durian season, consumers who had over indulged would wind up, falling asleep, lying sprawled out on the pavement. Overweight men with unbuttoned shirts remained abandoned by their more sensible friends who had gone home to their wives and children. Such scenes reminded me of New Year’s eve celebrations in Melbourne or elsewhere: revelers who had enjoyed themselves too much; to the point of being overwhelmed and defeated by their object of desire. People mentioned that one shouldn’t eat durian and drink alcohol. In 2005, a plane crashed leaving Medan airport. The plane crashed into houses in the busy city-streets below. There was a rumor that the plane was overloaded due to durians being sent to the president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. (The airport has now been moved out of central Medan.) Durians are imagined as being dangerous: able to knock out their consumers, and seemingly, lead to such greed that one over-loads a plane chock full of them. This is the sublimity of durians: they contain a pleasure that is also intoxicating, overwhelming.
Their odor is overwhelming and polarising. They are banned in offices and air-conditioned buildings in general. As such, they are equated with cigarette smoking. Their odor makes people nauseous. Perhaps for some, their odor is invitation to eat them; consume and devour them. Their odor reminds the inhaler of the pleasant times of eating the yellowy-white flesh in those heady moments before being knocked out and overwhelmed on a pavement somewhere. A durian’s smell reminds me of the bark of a pit-bull dog. The barking sound of a pit-bull is often more of a yelp and hardly befits its aggressive snarl or square jaw. A dog of such strength hardly needs an assertive and threatening bark. A durian’s odor – it’s pungent stench, perhaps – belies the softness and genteel qualities of its texture and flavors.
Durians, as such, are amenable to the act of connoisseurship. They are to be enjoyed slowly, learnedly, in company and with a sense of respect. As a fruit, their presence and taste changes with time. Just as there is a sakura-forecast on news channels in Japan, perhaps their could also be a durian-season forecast in Indonesia to complement the ramalan cuaca: where are the durians the best? where are the coming to full-ripeness? Perhaps there is already an app for such matters. (Probably there are many Facebook pages made by durian lovers.) The durian’s stench, its thick and strong spiky skin disguises the subtlety of its flavor and textures. The flavor changes from one piece to the next and within one piece itself. While eating slowly, one’s taste buds become adjusted to the durian’s sensations; one’s taste buds learn to discover the range of flavors. But, this can only be done slowly and in contemplation. Eating a durian, requires concentration and attention. Too much talk is a distraction; eating too quickly cuts out the slowly emerging flavors.
The flesh in part smooth and shiny. In others is it is stringy and matte. The flesh melts into one’s fingers as it is slowly and softly pulled apart. Imagine the treachery of eating such a fruit with a knife and fork. Eating a piece of durian is an intimate and corporeal act involving the skilled use of the fingers and the awareness of smell. Depending on its ripeness, a piece falls apart with ease or perpetuates a reluctance to have its form violated. A durian connoisseur knows how to eat one, when to eat one, and what to eat it with and in which circumstances. One must prepare one’s body for such an act: being full already leaves too little room for its heaviness. Being too hungry invites excessive and hurried consumption.
To eat durian is to engage with the pleasures of the flesh. The act is at once, contemplative and indulgent. Durians are sublime: their textures, flavor change quickly with the season and forever tempting one to over indulge. Their appearance is foreboding and intimidating. But, they become a delicacy to be enjoyed through artful and restrained consumption.