Indonesia Top 10: Facts about Durian

They smell like hell but taste like heaven. This football-sized “King of fruit” is famous for its pungent odour. A cleaver or machete is needed to open the thorny skin (duri means thorn). Inside are five or six segments of yellowish pulp encasing seeds. Here are our top ten facts on durian.

1. Indonesia’s founding president Sukarno publicly fed durian to US Ambassador Marshall Green, knowing he hated the fruit. Back in 1965, Sukarno had withdrawn Indonesia from the United Nations and was sending mixed signals on foreign policy. His durian dalliance with Green took place just days before the abortive military coup blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party. Green recalled in his memoir: “At this stage President Sukarno seemed to go out of his way to be pleasant, inviting only two members of the Diplomatic Corps, Mexican Ambassador Albaran and me, to share the podium with him at a September 28 cornerstone-laying ceremony at the University of Indonesia. However, it soon became clear to me that Sukarno was up to one of his tricks, because, having learned that I intensely disliked durian (a large fruit that smells like strong cheese and has the consistency of dough), he called for one to be brought on stage. While Sukarno led a student chorus of “makan, makan” (eat it, eat it), I consumed the nasty stuff for the honor of my country. My Mexican colleague was spared this ordeal. This was to be my last encounter with Sukarno for many weeks. The country was about to explode.”

2. It’s an Indonesian urban myth that durian contains alcohol. If you google “durian” and “alcohol”, the first result declares: “Eating durian together with alcohol can be lethal.” Seriously? Can mixing durian and beer kill you? No, not unless you get so drunk you climb a durian tree and fall out head-first. However, doctors warn that beer and durian are not a good combination, as your liver has to work much harder to metabolise the fats and sugars. So consuming the two can cause indigestion and bloating. Also, durian contains a sulphur compound which may inhibit the metabolism of alcohol, resulting in swifter and more severe hangovers. Eating 500 grams or more of durian can raise blood pressure, so people with hypertension may be more prone to a heart attack if they consume excessive quantities of durian and alcohol (or carbonated, sugar-heavy beverages). In one experiment, groups of mice were force-fed alcohol and durian, but none died, although many passed out drunk.

3. Durian is reputed to be an aphrodisiac for men. Hence it is the “King” of the fruits. There is a saying in Malaysia, “When the durian falls, the sarong starts to rise.” Some people swear that eating a couple of the seeds will provide about two hours of firm stamina. Durian can cause body temperature and blood pressure to rise. A study showed male mice tend to copulate more frequently with females after consuming durian.

4. In Indonesia, you can buy durian-flavoured condoms. They were introduced by contraceptive producer Sutra-Fiesta in 2003 as a gimmick to promote safe sex and family planning. Outspoken actress and singer Julia Perez, who died from cancer in 2017, served as “condom ambassador” to raise awareness for the prevention of HIV/AIDS. She declared the durian prophylactics her favourite. Durian condoms were launched in Thailand and Malaysia in 2016, and marketed as being ribbed with “extra large studs for maximum stimulation”. A pack of three produced by Fiesta costs about Rp15,000 – significantly cheaper than three actual durian.

5. Durian were believed to be a factor in Indonesia’s third-worst plane crash, when Mandala Airlines Flight 91 went down in a residential area a few moments after taking off in Medan, North Sumatra, in September 2005, killing 149 people. An investigation found no signs of engine defects, but noted the plane had been loaded with 2.7 tons of fresh durian, although weight and balance were said to be in line with requirements.

6. Many airlines operating in Asia have banned durians from hand-baggage, as well as checked-in baggage. This is because the stench has prompted complaints from other passengers. In Singapore, durian are banned on public transport and in some hotels. Offenders are asked to throw away or consume the fruit elsewhere, or risk a S$500 fine. The fruit can be vacuum-packed in an effort to preserve freshness and prevent the odour from emanating.

7. Durian is believed to have originated in Borneo. There are 27 species: mostly from Borneo, Peninsular Malaysia and Sumatra. Most species are inedible. Grafting has produced many new and hybrid varieties, with agricultural scientists aiming for bigger, better-tasting fruit and higher-yielding trees. A mature tree produces about 100 fruit a year.

8. Jakarta was sarcastically dubbed “the Big Durian” by Western expatriates in the 1990s, signifying it is an acquired taste. The metaphor suggests the city’s malodorous stench and thorny traffic conceal delicious treasures. The nickname never really caught on, lacking the local popularity of New York as “the Big Apple”. Singapore’s enormous Esplanade Theatre complex has been nicknamed “the big durian” because of its spiny domed rooftops. There’s also a 2003 Malaysian documentary film called The Big Durian, about a soldier running amok in Kuala Lumpur.

9. Durian are a status symbol in Indonesia and other Asian nations, proudly presented as a gift. Prices in Indonesian markets range from about Rp25,000 to Rp100,000 per fruit, depending on the variety, size and taste. Indonesians consume an average 1.41 kilograms of durian per capita annually. The fruit are cholesterol-free but high in calories and sugar, so should be avoided by diabetics. In 2015, Indonesia produced 996,540 tons of durian, mostly in Java and Sumatra.

10. Durian husks have been touted as an environmentally-friendly component for particleboard furniture and organic fertilisers. Only about 30 percent of a durian is consumed; the seeds and huge husk are usually discarded. Husks can be chipped, dried, chemically treated and mixed with coconut husks to produce particleboards for insulation panels or furniture. The white part of the fruit can be used in cosmetics.

 

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Kenneth Yeung is a Jakarta-based editor.