I am a durian-hater

There is something akin to a cultural divide between people who love durian and those who cannot stand it

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

That's it? You eat the whole thing?" asked the American woman, looking curiously at the plump mounds of yellow flesh on the plate that had been handed to her.

"No, honey, there's a seed inside it which you throw away," said her friend, in a rich Southern accent straight out of a scene from the television vampire series True Blood.

Next to them, a Japanese manga artist from Nagoya was gingerly sniffing and then sampling the fruit. Her eyes widened as she took her first bite.

I forget now why there had been such a strange collection of people at K.'s dinner party. But all of them now flocked around her as she burst out of the kitchen holding a giant plate with one spiky empty husk on it.

"Hey everyone, this is what a durian looks like," K. declared, as oohs and aahs echoed around the room.

The American mother's teenage daughter picked up the green shell and held it up, as her sisters crowded around her to take a selfie.

As usual, I found myself slowly backing away from the table, trying to maintain an ambassadorial smile.

I had gotten as far as the adjacent hallway when I encountered a familiar sight - a fellow skulker. He was looking on wearily, from an olfactorily safe distance, at the melee around the dessert table.

I had never met this stranger before, but our eyes met with a sort of telepathic understanding forged from years - no, decades - of covert friendship.

"Don't like?" I ventured.

His reply contained no words - only a grimace.

Welcome to the secret sulky world of durian-hating Singaporeans. The lives we lead would be so happy and fulfilling if not for these unexpectedly lonely and culturally displacing moments.

Sometimes, I search my memory to try to recall the exact moment this fierce and irreversible loathing of the so-called "King of the Fruits" started.

The image that comes up is of my family sitting on stools in the kitchen of our three-room flat in Holland Drive.

The entire place stinks to high heaven as my dad uses a chopper to split open a durian he has taken out from a big brown paper sack on the floor. The adults tuck in and declare it's an excellent-tasting one - "sweet like honey".

Even my baby sister is eating the yellow fruit with complete relish, and my mum tells me that I must finally try it.

Having always been an unadventurous and picky eater, I hesitate yet again - as I have done all my young life.

But tonight, something tells me to go for it. I'm a big boy now and there's nothing to be scared of, I tell myself. After all, I want to join in the fun and not be an outsider any longer.

Yet as the creamy flesh presents itself, centimetres from my mouth, every fibre in me screams for this to stop.

"Go on boy," my dad says encouragingly. "It's just like ice cream."

I close my eyes and eat a tentative mouthful. The panic and trauma that soon ensues scars me for the rest of my life.

For it is not at all like ice cream or honey. It tastes of rotting garbage, with the texture of mango that has decayed so badly it has turned into mush.

I am not sure but I think I vomited all of my dinner right there on the kitchen floor, bringing the durian party to an abrupt halt. After that, my parents never offered me durian ever again.

In fact, the whole family often had to placate me as my hatred for the fruit turned angry and spiteful.

I remember bristling impatiently as my parents went hunting for durians at the big open fruit markets that used to spring up in Geylang and Balestier when the season rolled around. I would clamour to go home, forcing them to cut short their shopping trip.

At home, I would cry and make a big fuss about the smell of durian in the house. I remember refusing to eat any item that had been in the fridge because it smelt of leftover durian.

Eventually, I deprived my parents of the joy of opening up durians and eating them straight out of the shell. They had to ask the durian sellers to repack the fruit into plastic boxes, which they carefully cling-wrapped to seal in the odour.

Later, as I grew up and started work, durians continued to be a source of irritation and inconvenience - only this time for me.

I've lost count of the number of times a durian-based dessert has arrived at the end of a meal which I have had to apologetically decline.

Friends and business contacts have spent time and money on what they have thought would be a special treat for me (such as the famous durian puffs from Goodwood Park Hotel), only for their confections and affections to be spurned.

Just last week, I had to decline a hard-to-get invitation to sample top grade mao shan wang durians with one of Singapore's most prominent food bloggers.

The problem is that each time I say no to durians, it feels like I've experienced a small cultural identity crisis.

People look at durian-haters and ask - sometimes even audibly - if they are true sons of the soil.

It's understandable if Westerners cannot stomach the taste or smell of the fruit, but for a Hakka-Peranakan Chinese, born and bred here, to say the same is akin to him disavowing his origins and cultural heritage.

It doesn't help that the fruit tastes so heavenly to those who like it, because it makes the durian-hater seem like a stubborn fool at the doorstep of paradise who refuses to enter.

My only consolation is that as the years go by, durians seem to be slowly dropping out of the cultural zeitgeist as the young in Singapore take on a wider and more international array of likes and dislikes.

I have often wondered if I should give the fruit another try. There is little to lose, and who knows, it may even taste good to my now-adult taste buds.

But that would be deserting my fellow skulkers and mainstreaming it - and where's the fun in that?

ignatius@sph.com.sg

Register here to get free digital access to The Straits Times until Aug 9, 2015.
Comments