Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Durian Dirge, Part 4 of 4

Durian, Detected

I wore my new custom-made dress from Hoi An. At the Bangkok hotel, I blow-dried my hair and even risked applying makeup for the first time in sweltering Southeast Asia. It was just a sweep of mascara, but Dave noticed that something looked different.

We were preparing ourselves for a treat.

For the past two days, Dave and I had fueled ourselves on the city’s amazing (and amazingly cheap) street food. Platters of fiery-sweet noodles, fragrant soups, complex curries, and chunks of fruit dipped in spicy salted sugar overflowed from Bangkok’s street stalls, food courts, and curbside caf├ęs. But Bangkok is also home to some of the world’s great fine dining restaurants, and for tonight we picked one called Nahm.

Dave had read about Nahm months earlier. Founded by an Australian living in London, Nahm was the first Thai restaurant to earn a Michelin Star. When a second branch opened in Bangkok, Thai critics were split: some raged that Thai cuisine cooked by an outsider could never claim authenticity; others raved about the incredible food.

I hoped to take a taxi even though the restaurant was quite close to our hotel. Tonight was for living in style, and a pounding tropical rainstorm ensured that walking would destroy my careful coiffing efforts. But Dave and I quickly discovered that catching a cab is impossible in a Bangkok storm. Our raincoats provided little protection against the wind-blown drops as we walked backwards in the direction of the restaurant, arms out in hailing position.

We looked like beached merpeople by the time we stepped through Nahm’s gleaming doors. My once-perfect hair was dripping and bedraggled; the hem of my new dress clung to soaked knees. Dave’s rain-speckled glasses steamed up in the indoor air. A smiling young woman seated the two of us at a large table set for four, where I used a spare napkin to dry off.

A meal worthy of kings would soon heal the wounds of our less than royal arrival.

As recommended by the New York Times, Dave and I both ordered the tasting menu – his vegetarian, mine with seafood but no meat. We started with an identical amuse bouche that packed all the flavors of an excellent pad see ew into a single, glutinous bite. Then came an appetizer: we each received four crisp, flavorful betel leaves filled with different exotic, highly spiced goodies. The idea was to pick up each one and eat it like a soft taco.

“I’m already feeling sort of full,” I said as our server cleared away the licked-clean dishes.

The half-sized appetizer plates were replaced with large dinner plates, which our server mounded high with steaming rice. Then she brought out the main course – or rather, main courses. There was a fiery, tangy seafood salad for me and a vegetable version for Dave, two soups that sang with lemongrass, a wonderfully creamy yellow crab curry with Thai flavors and a rich vegetable curry that tasted like India. We spooned food onto our rice and ate Thai style, using our forks to load morsels onto our spoons, then bringing the spoons to our mouths.

“So. Delicious.” Dave said.

Then more food arrived. A savory tofu stir fry, earthy mushrooms paired with bright greens, incredibly flaky fish nestled in sweet soft eggplant. Dave undid his belt. We were barely halfway through the excellent bottle of wine that the flamboyant sommelier (there was a sommelier!) had recommended.

Then more food arrived.

Fortunately, in Thai culture, it is considered polite to leave food on the table at the end of a meal. The host is expected to provide more food than the guest can eat, and the guest should leave a bit food behind to prove that the host provided enough.* By the time Dave undid his pants button, it was clear we had to concede defeat – leaving behind three quarters of the feast. It hurt to watch all the sublime food go to waste, but it would have hurt more to take another bite.

“And for dessert?” our server asked after the plates were cleared.

Dave and I looked at each other. We’d forgotten that the tasting menu came with a sweet course and considered forgoing it altogether. But we looked at the menu. Well, why not sample two dishes? We could take a taste apiece and call it a night. Dave chose an icy lychee-based pudding that was served with a bit of cake and fried shallots. I knew what I had to order instantly.

“I’ll have the durian dish,” I said. The server smiled.

“You know durian?” she said. I nodded.

Dave’s dessert arrived cold, mine warm. We explored his first: clear, a bowl of jelly-like fruit swimming in its own icy juice that paired beautifully with the soft cake and even the rich shallots. Then I pulled up my dish, a coconut tapioca pudding topped with a mound of warm cooked durian. I dug in a spoon. Steam rose up.

Garbage! Sewage! Putrefaction!

My nose was under attack. The stench rising from the bland-looking bowl overwhelmed me. Dave was giggling.

Now do you smell it?” he said.

“Oh my God,” I said. But I had to try one bite. Breathing through my mouth, I pulled the bowl close and ladled up a small spoonful. The pudding was wonderfully rich, sweet, and creamy – but the flavor of the durian interrupted these sensations with all the putrid intensity of its aroma. I don’t know why this durian tasted so awful. Maybe I was too full to enjoy anything, or maybe heating the fruit intensifies its odor.

I pushed the dessert to the far end of our huge table, hopefully out of smelling range. Soon our server came to clear up.

“You don’t like the durian?” she said, seeing my barely touched dessert.

“We’re just so full,” I said guiltily. Her eyebrows rose but she said no more, though there was no reason why a bulging belly would force me to push to durian halfway to Cambodia.

Despite this pungent experience, I didn’t acquire an eternal detestation for durian. But the fresh fruit is nearly impossible to find in this part of the world, so I’ll have to wait for my next trip to Southeast Asia to try durian again.

Monday, July 11, 2011

BREAKING NEWS: NY to Boston Budget Bus Expected to Reach Destination On Time

Durian-related posts will resume after this important notice

BREAKING NEWS UPDATE: Bus reached Riverside Station at 12:58pm, where it was greeted by a cheering crowd. Driver Will Kazmini declined to participate in celebrations, saying he needed to get the bus's remaining passengers to their Cambridge destination on time. Original story below.


**


A World Wide Tours Bus that departed from midtown Manhattan at approximately 9am today will likely reach Riverside Station in Newton, Massachusetts, at the scheduled arrival time of 1pm, according to driver Will Kazmini. The current on-time arrival rate for buses traveling this route is .02%.

"It was a bunch of lucky circumstances coming together," said Kazmini, who has been employed by World Wide for 11 months and has landed just one other bus on time, that one at 2am. Kazmini cited lack of traffic, good weather, and efficient communication among bus operator employees as the primary causes for the on-time arrival.

Still, he cautioned against high expectations.

"There's 5 minutes left," Kazmini said. "Anything could happen."

But passengers' spirits are buoyed by the good news.

"I was prepared for the long haul," said Stephanie Bernhard, 24. "My pack has survival supplies for up to 36 hours." She said it hasn't yet sunk in that she might have a whole afternoon after the trip from New York, but she has already called friends and family at home to tell them they should expect her soon.

Newton Mayor Setti Warren will greet the incoming bus at Riverside Station, where he will honor Kazmini with a key to the city to recognize his feat of punctuality. World Wide's budget bus competitors, including Bolt Bus, Megabus, and Fung Wah, declined to comment for this story.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Durian Dirge, Part 3 of 4

New trials, new tastes

Two weeks and a country away from the Mekong, Dave and I were acquainting ourselves with another muddy river: the Chao Phraya of Bangkok. The Thai capital's main attractions, from golden-domed temples to grandiose palaces embellished with exotic depictions of animals and people, are all located in an old section of the vast city that is not accessible via the city’s metro systems. A river ferry provides the most efficient means of transport between the old city and the Sky Train stop that we would take back to our hotel.

After a full day of examining giant Buddhas, losing ourselves in Bangkok’s befuddling alley system, and sweating through our shirts, we were ready to freshen up in the cool comfort of our hotel. We made our way back to the closest ferry station, where a cluster of vendors were hawking their wares. One venerable fruit merchant, a shaggy-haired man who would not have looked out of place at a San Francisco co-op, persuaded Dave to buy a neon-hued king orange beverage. The juice was delicious: sweet, sour, and salty in equal measures. I noticed that he also stocked plump sections of pale yellow fruit seated on Styrofoam trays and sheathed in plastic wrap. These pods were fatter and paler than those we’d seen in Vietnam, but they were definitely durian.

I bought a tray. The fruit, I reasoned, deserved another chance. Perhaps our Mekong durian had been subpar.

I unwrapped my treat while we waited for the ferry. This time, the flesh didn’t collapse when I bit into the pod; instead it remained firm but lush and creamy. The flavor was milder and somehow more savory than the previous durian's.

“Dave — I think I like it!” I said as the ferry approached.

“I can smell it,” he said. He wouldn't try a single bite.

We climbed aboard the boat. More of a tourist vehicle during off-peak hours, in early evening the ferry was as crowded as a rush hour New York subway car. Teenagers in baggy school uniforms jostled for space with well-dressed professionals and grungy tourists, while monks in saffron robes stood aloof looking out at the choppy waters.

“Really?” I said as the ferry pulled away. “I can’t smell it. Is it bad?”

“It smells like garbage.”

“Oh. Sorry, I guess,” I said. I kept nibbling at the durian nonetheless. Filling my mouth with its flavor probably prevented the odor from offending my nose. The more I ate, the less disturbing I found the onion taste and the more I enjoyed the fruit’s intense sweetness and pudding-like consistency. I moved closer to Dave as more ferry passengers crushed in around us. He backed away.

“Seriously, you don’t smell that?” The boat was ripping down the Chao Phraya. Dave stood downwind of me.

“No!” I said.

“It’s really strong. Like something is rotting.”

“Well I’ll throw it away when we get off.”

Soon the ferry was pulling into a dock. The boats only stop for a matter of seconds, so we rushed to the exit while I pulled out a map to make sure we had actually reached our destination.

“No,” I cried. “This isn’t it — we have three more stops!”

But it was too late. Dave had already jumped out to the dock, and the ferrymen were now pushing the boat back onto the river. I was still on the boat. It was gaining speed.

“WAIT!” I screamed, pointing at Dave. The ferrymen laughed at my distress. I balked. Then all at once I started laughing too. “I’ll meet you at the next stop!” I called. I couldn’t tell if Dave heard me over the roar of the engine and slapping of waves.

At the next station I dutifully disembarked, durian still in hand. I ate a few more bites before tossing what was left into a nearby trash can — a luxury after two weeks in Vietnam, where the government apparently didn’t consider such receptacles a public necessity.

In Vietnam. If this had happened in Vietnam, I would have been terrified. The dock where I waited was much quieter than others on the Chao Phraya. I was totally alone looking out at the broad muddy waters floating occasional bunches of detached water plants that rose and fell on the waves. It looked just like the Mekong, if you replaced the skyscrapers with palm trees and the grand gilded temples with rusty tin shacks. I had changed since we chugged down that river just twelve days earlier. Then, even a minor inconvenience like this would have initiated a nervous fit: heart pounding, palms sweating, mind churning with worst-case scenarios.

Now I was calm, even amused. A place is a place is a place. With a head on your shoulders and a few coins in your pocket, it’s usually possible to adjust your course and plan your next move. This is how you travel, if you’re lucky enough to have the chance.

The next ferry pulled up, and there was Dave waving at the back near the entrance. His smile said Yes, we’re ridiculous – but that’s no reason to abandon our dignity. I hopped on and pulled him in for a hug.

“Hello,” he said. “You smell like durian.”

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Durian Dirge, Part 2 of 4

Delta Discoveries


“That’s not durian,” Huyen said.

It was the first day of our overnight trip to the Mekong Delta, the immensely fertile river-streaked region of Vietnam’s far South. Dave and I had booked an organized tour at the last minute, and through sheer luck ended up with a guide just for us. Huyen (pronounced “h-WEEN” as far as I could tell) was a youngish woman with skinny legs, stick-out ears, and teeth that proved Western orthodontistry hasn’t yet hit it big in rural Vietnam. She had just led us off our river boat for a sampling of the Mekong’s famous local fruits. Dave and I were welcomed into an open-sided wooden house, served thimbles of jasmine tea, and offered trays of mango, pineapple, hairy lychee-like rambutans, thumb-sized bananas, and the yellow fruit I recognized from Saigon’s Chinatown.

“Durian!” I exclaimed. Huyen disagreed.

“Jackfruit,” she corrected me. “Maybe similar outside. Very different inside.”

Oops. I told Huyen about our supposed durian encounter in Saigon.

“Jackfruit,” she said.

Huyen was a Mekong native who had moved to Saigon two years earlier, hoping her English skills would win her a better job than they could in the countryside. As a guide, she was able to visit the Mekong most days; but eventually Huyen hoped to move back permanently and raise livestock and fruit trees. Indeed, Huyen seemed as interested in the topic of fruit generally as I was in durian specifically. What fruits grew natively in the U.S.? she wanted to know. What crops were harvested in our Northeastern region? Did pineapples or bananas grow anywhere in the U.S.? What fruit was most popular among Americans?

When we told Huyen how much Americans like apples, she grinned enthusiastically.

“Sometimes we have U.S. apple in Vietnam, and I buy,” she said. “But not often. Very expensive. We have apple from China cheaper, but not good.”

“What’s your favorite fruit?” I asked Huyen.

“Me?” she said. “I prefer durian.”

***

Over the next 24 hours, Dave and I would taste the sweetest, juiciest mango of our lives, but we wouldn’t taste durian. At jungle-like orchards alive with the buzzing of hidden bugs, we would encounter jackfruits three times the size of my head dangling from branches no thicker than a baby’s wrist. We would sniff confounding varieties of fragrant citrus fruits named lemon, lime, and king orange, all green-skinned. At the famous floating market, we would see boats piled high with pineapples, coconuts, and bananas. But no durian.

“Now I will show you durian,” Huyen said at last. We were preparing to depart from Can Tho, the Mekong’s largest city, for our long ride back to Saigon. Huyen looked around the busy intersection where we were waiting for our car. Close to the river, inches from the motorbike swarms, she spotted her target: a pair of vendors displaying pails of pink cherry-sized globes and a basket of spiky, football-sized ovals. We advanced.

“Durian,” said Huyen, pointed to the thorn-covered fruits. I elbowed Dave excitedly.

We were invited to seat ourselves on the vendors’ tiny plastic stools while Huyen squatted to examine the vendors’ wares. After some pressing and sniffing, she negotiated a price for us. The durian she chose did not look as though it wanted to be eaten: brown and hard-shelled, its inch-long spikes were sharp enough to pierce human flesh. But the vendor cracked it open with a few hacks of her machete-like knife, revealing a white-lined interior cushioning large, yellow-gray pods the shape of mutant orange segments. Huyen extracted two and handed them to Dave and me.

“Eat everything but the seed,” she said.

I took a bite. Immediately the pod, which had seemed firm to the touch, collapsed into a gooey, sticky mess. Dave later compared the texture to runny egg. The taste — well, it was interesting. Very rich, very complex. Like jackfruit, it had a distinct onion flavor, but the durian’s was more pronounced. It competed with a musky and distinctly tropical flavor that hovered somewhere between pineapple and putrefaction.

“It’s like — the texture of banana, with the taste of pineapple?” I said. I wanted very much to like it.

“No,” Huyen said. “Completely different.”

Dave and I ate a few more bites, but declined when Huyen offered us the final pod. She ate it with gusto.

“What did you think?” I asked Dave as we got up.

“Glad we tried it,” he said. “Don’t need to try it again.”

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Durian Dirge, Part 1 of 4

Duped and Duped

“Binh Thay Market. Chinatown. Cholon. Cho-lawn? Chow-luhn?”

It was Day Two in Saigon, our first city, and after a sobering morning at the War Remnants Museum, Dave and I were at last ready to venture away from the compact, attraction-packed district near our hotel. After failed negotiations with a few xe om, or motorbike drivers, we hailed a cab that was not operated by one of the two companies our guidebook recommended. We showed the cabbie a map, pointed to our destination. He looked at it in some confusion, but soon gave a quick nod of his head and said “Yes, Chinatown market.” Dave and I were dubious, the more so because the driver insisted we set a price up front instead of starting the cab’s meter. But the price he quoted was reasonable — about $5 — and the driver assured us that he wouldn’t add any charges later on.

Twenty minutes of deafening traffic later, he pulled over next to a wide alley that did contain some sort of indoor market. But the street we were on did not correspond with the one we wanted according to the map. Dave tried to explain this to our driver.

“Chinatown market! Chinatown market!” the cabbie said, pointing at the building. Flustered, we paid him and jumped out to the curb. A quick study of our map showed that the driver had, in fact, brought us to a Chinatown market — but not the one we wanted. This one was much smaller and a significantly shorter ride from the museum. We would have to catch another cab or walk about two miles to our intended destination.

“Let’s just walk,” I said. “After all, we’re here to explore.” And, I added silently, we need some time to recover from the sting of being ripped off. This didn’t take long. We had only been wandering for a few moments when I spotted a cart creaking with the weight of a growing mound of golden yellow fruit chunks that flew from the knife of an old lady, who was in turn pulling the pods from inside a giant fruit with knobbly green-brown skin.

“Dave — I think that’s durian!”

I had been itching to try this mysterious fruit long before we stepped off the plane into the sultry air of Vietnam. My fruit-loving friend Yifan had exulted its many virtues: an intense sweetness, a complex flavor, and a creamy, luscious texture. After hearing such praise, you can imagine my surprise when a Google search informed me that durians are banned from the Singapore subway system.

Why ban durians and not, say, mangoes?

It turns out that many people, including Southeast Asians, find the fruit’s odor repugnant — an overpowering bouquet of garbage, sewage, and putrid decay. The same people tend to despise the divisive fruit’s flavor, and even those who praise it as the “king of fruits” offer flavor descriptions ranging from odd to alarming. I encountered “banana and garlic pudding,” “vanilla custard with a dirty sock aftertaste,” and “pineapple foie gras.” I couldn’t wait to taste it.

Dave and I approached the Chinatown fruit vendor, who held out a 10,000 dong bill to indicate how much she would charge for a plastic baggie filled with pods that she had pared away from the fruit’s huge round seeds. We paid, thanked her, and walked away with our booty.

I sniffed the bag’s contents: floral, piney, and a bit oniony, but not at all disgusting. Dave wasn’t deterred either.

“Maybe it’s like cilantro — some people smell it, others don’t?”

We tasted. The refreshing flesh crunched between our teeth, releasing notes of sweet pineapple, citrus, and an entirely new essence onto our tongues. The onion aroma translated into a taste mild enough that it wasn’t unpleasant. Dave and I agreed that the fruit was palatable and interesting, but neither outrageously delicious nor horribly disgusting — the two most common ratings of durian.

But, oh well. We had tasted it, fortifying ourselves for the long walk to come and checking another item off our Vietnam to-do list.