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.”

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