I first came upon a durian in a wilderness park in Malaysia. Piled in the camp store were what looked like small cannonballs covered with blunt spines. A scent hung in the air, reminiscent of sewer waste: I had found the fabled durian.
Guidebooks I'd read had cautiously spoken of durians, with the word infamous usually mentioned. This had been enough to set my mind on trying what Asians called "the king of fruit."
A park ranger, seeing me pawing through the durians, gave me a hand. He picked up each one, sniffing the spiky ball and turning it. A few were set aside, and these received repeat inspection. Finally, he handed me one. "This " he said, as I juggled it between hands, trying to find a comfortable way to hold it, "is good." I thanked him and bought it.
Carrying the durian by its stem, I walked back toward my cabin. A Malaysian saw the durian and smiled. "A durian! Where did you get it?"
"At the store."
"Ah! You must be careful when you eat durian. If you drink alcohol with it, you will get sick."
"Terima kasih." I thanked him.
He smiled again. "Enjoy your durian!"
A little farther on a Chinese man noticed my durian. Another smile. "Where did you get it?" I listened to his repeat of the advice.
I had dinner with an Australian couple, Anthony and Bev, and a guy from Singapore, Daniel. I also brought the durian. The waiter saw the durian, smiled, and brought out a plate and a large knife. "They're crazy about durians around here," Anthony said.
After dinner, Daniel did the honors of cutting it open. Anthony had tried durian before and hadn't liked it, but was willing to give it a shot again because he thought his first hadn't been ripe. Bev didn't want anything to do with "the smelly old thing."
Split open, the durian revealed oval seeds surrounded by slimy white flesh and an even bigger stink. Daniel picked out one of the large seeds and sucked the white flesh off. Anthony and I followed suit.
The smell could not hide the taste: creamy custard with a hint of something like onion and a few unknown, exotic spices. It was the most unusual flavor I'd ever tasted, and it clung to my mouth.
Anthony made a face like he'd swallowed a rat and tossed the seed out. "There wasn't anything wrong with the other one I tried - they're all awful."
I grinned. "It's different. But the strangest thing is how extra-friendly people treat me. Even speaking Malay hasn't gotten me as far as this durian."
"That's because only an Asian could like a durian," said Anthony, drinking water to try and clear the taste from his mouth. "You have to be born liking the things, and anyone else who likes durians is an honorary Asian."
In Southeast Asian restaurants, when asked if I'd like dessert, I say, "Any durian?" The smiles never stop.