SINGAPORE – Overall, I think I was a pretty good sport when it came to the culinary curve balls Singapore threw my way. I weathered curries that could double as jet fuel, saw a ten-inch fish head served at a neighboring table (eyeballs and all, mind you), and even ate a black, gelantinous breakfast that some misguided chef long ago dubbed "a thousand-year egg." But there was just one time when I had to tip my hat and admit defeat.
It all started with a search for the infamous durian, a fruit that is banned from most public places in Singapore due to its strong smell. The saying goes that it "smells like hell and tastes like heaven." I thought I'd have a unique edge in this tasting, since I'm what you might call nasally challenged. Over the years, having a poor sense of smell has generally worked to my advantage, especially living in New York City. Plus, I've been a vegetarian for half my life and love my fruits and vegetables, so I figured this would be a cakewalk.
I asked the hotel concierge where I could get my hands on some of this funky fruit, but before dishing out any information, he gave a stern warning not to bring the fruit onto hotel property. After assuring him that I had no intention of doing so, I learned that the best place to find good, ripe durian is in Geylang, Singapore's Red Light district. Later that night, after a word of caution from my cab driver, I hit the streets in search of the king of fruit.
The search didn't last long, since the roads are lined with fruit stands. I soon settled on a vendor who was so enthusiastic to find a Westerner trying durian for the first time that he eagerly selected the choicest fruit available. Its oblong exterior is covered in prickly spikes so sharp that the weight of it left deep impressions in my palm.
Perhaps more ominously, my new-found friend then cut open the spikey shell for me with one, two, three deft swings of his machete-like blade before inviting me to take a seat at one of the nearby wooden picnic tables. As I cracked open a can of Tiger, Singapore's beer of choice, I took a good long look at the halved fruit and decided I could handle the odor.
I noticed that the locals were all eating with their hands so I dug right in and came up with a gooey paste. That's right. It's a tropical fruit with a consistency best equated with soft brie. I plunged the yellow paste into my mouth.
Almost instantly, I wondered what the hell I'd been thinking.
Forget the brie and think of a fine stilton cheese left in the sun all summer. Or better yet, imagine if you could taste the smell of natural gas and give it a sharp bite. All around me, people were relishing this regional treat while the proud vendor stood over me, encouraging me to take another bite. I didn't want to be rude, so I put one more small bite to my lips and felt my stomach lurch at the return offense.
Forgetting all the manners my mother taught me, I declined the rest, washed my hands at the outdoor sink, and high-tailed it out of there. Unfortunately, the well-intentioned vendor had wrapped up the remaining durian so that I could take it home with me. Not only did I want nothing to do with the rest of the fruit, but I knew there was no way I could get back into my hotel with it, so I had no choice by to walk a little further down the street and ditch it in a trash can, ignoring any feelings of guilt.
In my room an hour later, I sat burping up cursed memories of my two-bite adventure, wondering why, oh why, I couldn't have just settled on more of those black, gelatinous eggs.
BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE
Two food adventurers react to the polarizing fruit:
- Andrew Zimmern's gag reflex kicks in on "Bizarre Foods" (fast forward 5:35 minutes)
- Chef Anthony Bourdain waxes poetic on "No Reservations" (fast forward 5:50 minutes)