By the middle of the afternoon, my fingers are crisscrossed with tiny nicks and cuts as if I’ve been playing with irritated cats for six hours instead of serving fruit.
I set a durian on the rough, slatted table where my assigned group sits: two couples from Hong Kong who are visiting Penang, Malaysia specifically to indulge in durian. The men wear polo shirts already stained around the armpits with sweat. One woman fans herself with a floppy white-and-black sunhat, gazing at the view over the treetops, where the farm plunges steeply toward the heat-hazy Straits of Malacca far below.
Penang is a well-known destination for durian lovers, who flood the island each June and July for the short but sweet season when the large, thorn-encrusted fruits tumble from trees into nets suspended over roads and walkways. Buses filled with Chinese tourists trundle up the winding switchbacks of the mountainous west coast to deliver their passengers to farms and roadside establishments specializing in durian. These places have tables lined with napkins and water bottles, a sink to wash your hands, and, ideally, a good view. When you sit down, a host, called the durian tukang, takes your order. High-end locales offer flights of durian, in the same manner that vineyards offer flights of wine.
Black thorn durians. Photo: Lindsay Gasik
Bao Sheng’s Durian Farm is among the oldest and most popular durian spots on the island. Each day a tour bus parks precariously on the narrow road above the farm, while cars and taxis jostle around each other in the slanted drive. The season reaches a fevered pitch in late June, when Bao Sheng’s signature durian comes into season: Red Prawn. The farsighted Chang family, which has owned the farm for four generations, planted the trees back in 1959, and fifty years later the variety has a richness and daintiness in texture that is, in my experience, unmatched.
Perhaps foretelling its success, the farm’s name translates loosely as abundance, or, in the words of Mr. Teik Seng Chang, the farm’s current owner, “it means the tree grows very well.” Four years ago, when I first visited Bao Sheng’s, it wasn’t quite so crowded. There were few Westerners, and we stood out from his normal customer base. Mr. Chang took the time to sit with my group and open our durians, lovingly sharing his wisdom on how to select, open, and enjoy the mythically spiny fruits. We were spellbound.
“Your people,” Mr. Chang commented to me years later, referring to Westerners, “are not so full of durian already. So you can learn.”
My third summer at Bao Sheng’s, I began serving durian. Some guests come to Bao Sheng’s to learn the subtleties of tasting durian, but many come just to eat; I can’t tell yet what the two couples in my group want.
“At Bao Sheng’s,” I tell the group, “We serve durians in a sequence, beginning with sweet, fruity-tasting durians and finishing with durians that taste like coffee, chocolate, or wine.” I pat the durian’s thick thorns with the flat of my open pocketknife. “We are starting with a variety called 604 because it is sweet and has a light, flowery aroma.”
Zhi Vooi Chang smelling a durian. Photo: Lindsay Gasik
By now I have their full attention. I tilt the durian and plunge the thin blade into its bottom all the way to the hilt. With a quick twist it pops open easily, unzipping itself along the seams of its thorny shell; 604’s have unusually thin shells and I have a lot of practice. As I arrange the creamy flesh for them to taste, they pepper me with questions I’ve come to expect. A Caucasian woman serving durian to Asians is a perplexing role reversal to many guests.
“How did you learn about durians?” the man asks.
“Sorry, it’s just that we never knew that Westerners can like durian,” his wife says. “It’s quite unusual.”
“And you can stand the smell?” the other woman asks, “I imagine it must be quite smelly for you to work here.”
The durian is so strongly perfumed it’s banned on public transit throughout Southeast Asia. Scientists have attempted to dissect its aroma for decades, as in a 2012 study by the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry. However, the fruit never smelled bad to me. I first smelled it at an American music festival, where an odd, unidentifiable scent lingered on the breeze: not quite body odor, not quite marijuana or cooking smoke, but definitely not disgusting, like sewage or natural gas or—as Anthony Bourdain once described it—like kissing your dead grandmother. It simply smelled exotic, in the most alien definition of the word.