When it comes to durian, spitters are quitters


Photo: Illustration by Hailey Akau

Illustration by Hailey Akau

By Bryan Liu, Assistant Opinion Editor

Durian is an acquired taste—a taste westerners can’t seem to acquire, so they make fun of it on the internet. The stinky “king of fruits” endemic to southeast Asia has found its niche in the sub-genre of YouTube clickbait…as a punchline. 

And by ‘stinky’ I mean stinky. I mean it’s so foul it’s provocative. In “DURIAN FRUIT vs ANGRY GRANDPA” by TheAngryGrandpaShow, the titular senior citizen bludgeoned the spiky fruit with a variety of swords after his family pranked him into eating it. The video tallied 5.5 million views. 

Similarly, Coyote Peterson’s video “MOST DISGUSTING FOOD EVER” garnered 7.4 million views after he retched and spit chunks of the fruit into a trash can. These clips, along with hundreds of other late-night bits and amateur footage, always feature an American gagging through their first time trying durian. 

Durian hate is real.

In these reviews, it’s hard to separate truth from theatrics, but to me the truth has always been undeniable: durian is delicious. It feels like summer. It tastes like sweetness. The texture is creamy enough to melt in your mouth: durian slaps harder than Will Smith. It can be fried, frozen, mixed in desserts like mochi or ice cream, or served as is. In east Asian countries, durian is beloved for its taste and aroma. Although some countries have banned it from hotels and public transportation because of its distinct scent, I would argue the smell is an essential part of the experience. 

Durian only sucks when we try to quantify it through the Western palate, and it’s pretty obvious that the Western palate can’t fathom the flavor of durian. 

For example, durian enthusiast Lindsay Gasik, who runs the blog “Year of The Durian,” describes the fruit as having “subtle hints of chives mixed with powdered sugar. It’s supposed to taste like diced garlic and caramel poured into whipped cream.” What. The. Fuck?

It tickles me when Western cuisine tries to quantify durian by comparing it to familiar Western flavors because there’s just nothing like it. Any attempt to do so results in farcical absurdity. “The Oxford Companion to Food,” an encyclopedia of global cuisine, offers the testimony of a tourist in Indonesia who declared that eating the fruit “was not much different from having to consume used surgical swabs,” after comparing the taste to “sewage, stale vomit, onions, and cheese.” Don’t think about it, just trust me. Durian isn’t bad: it’s just different.

It’s reductive to interpret Asian tastes through the Western lens. We, the Asian community, welcome chefs like Anthony Bourdain and Gordon Ramsay to come and cook our dishes, work in our restaurants, and prepare our ingredients. But in the process, we are often forced to the background in favor of the presenter—the white savior who brings their own Western point of view to our distinct, Eastern world. 

We may gain representation, but at the cost of no longer being the protagonists of our own stories. The Bourdain/Ramsay-figure still remains the patron saint of American food writers. 

“Even when he’s sucking down noodles in Hanoi or exploring the back alleys of Yangon, [Bourdain] is the white savior centering the story, and his gaze is paramount,” wrote food critic Chawadee Nualkhair in her blog the Bangkok Glutton. Despite the praise and fanfare directed at different cultures, he is still the hero. 

Bourdain was the best—I’m not disputing that; I grew up with him, too. However, his work presents Asian food as a submissive foil to Western cuisine, especially with the advent of Asian fusion restaurants that assimilate Asian food to the Western palate. Critics will praise eateries for marketing themselves as “adventurous” after cooking with an obscure ingredient or “modernizing” traditional recipes. 

Eating Asian food ‘raises’ the social capital of the Western consumer and ‘reduces’ the value of its origin—which is why Americans love to eat durian like an extreme sport on YouTube. It perpetuates the narrative that durian sucks. Because its spiky “Asianness” and exotic flavor threaten the Western world’s conception of food. Because we want to watch “Asianness” and exotic flavors continue to be hated for entertainment.

The nature of Asian food in America will always cater to a white audience—Chinese food changed to be more American. But the complex Asian American diaspora is so much more than cheap takeout; our food deserves fine-dining status. That’s why durian needs to be respected. Durian has to remain stinky and spiky because we all are. 

We must embrace durian’s “Asianness” because I swear, there is nothing sweeter than coming to terms with another culture in all of its beauty and complexity.