- Karthik Narasimhan
Flashback to a few weeks. We check into a hotel on our arrival in Malaysia, and collect our keys. We turn the key cards around, and it says in block letters, NO DURIAN. A red circle with a line drawn across it to emphasise the point. The genius in me assumes that Durian probably meant smoking. Then, we rent a car, turn the rental agreement around, and … yeah, same thing.
A few days later (we are still in flashback mode, remember?) a friend at work tells us, “Let's go try some Durian today.” And around him, quite a few people snicker.
“Yeah, it is the king of fruits.”
So he drives the whole group over to a thatched tent like structure, four people to a car, three cars, just before dinner on a Friday. Through the drive, I keep thinking about why a fruit would be banned from a hotel room.
As we enter the tent, a strong smell hits us – my eyes scan the place for a giant pile of rotten fruits sprinkled with Calvin Klein Obsession, and seasoned with various other olfactory irritants. But all they see are some jackfruit like thingies, shaped like giant pineapples.
The friend points to a couple of them thingies, and the guys at the store (for the thatched tent was a fruit store) nod, smile, take a knife, rip it open and let out the strongest, potentest, baddest odor I will ever get close to in this life. Oh, how I wish I could inflicit it on you!
Holding my breath, I boldly get close to the thing and peer closely at it. Inside were a few yellow pods, shaped like a triangle, with a texture like an avocado, buttery. I get away for a minute, take a deep breath and get close to the group again, which is by now in the grip of frenzy.
I watch in disbelief as they all grab the hideous pods, and actually put them into their mouth. I looked closely, because I was pretty familiar with the experiment where a professor put his index finger into a bad substance, and fooled his students by licking his middle finger. In this case though, the pods I smelled were the pods that were being eaten.
And then the inevitable followed – “Eat some,” someone offered. Lavanya and I took a slimy, slippery (and yes, smelly but I've stressed that enough) pod in our hands, and I watched as she boldly nibbled at the corner of hers. She followed it up with a most remarkable contortion of her facial muscles, and then aware of the glances of the frenzied mob beside her, she recovered quickly enough to state that it was, er, not too bad. My turn to nibble, and I took a small bite. The smell immediately located the backdoor to my nose and took it. I chortled, politely smiled at the guys, and threw the rest of it away. The group by now was in splits, leading me to recognize an important truth: they enjoyed our discomfort as much as they enjoyed the fruit.
So if I am ever stranded in the middle of the Pacific, a la Piscine, and if the only store in the middle of the ocean sells Durian, I will probably pass. Unless the alternative is torpedo soup.
A couple of people here told me that being a vegetarian prevented me from enjoying the pleasures of torpedo soup. And they waited expectantly for me to take the bait and ask what that was. I did.
“It is made from a bull,” one of them said. And the other chimed in, gratuitously, “From the part of the bull that looks like a torpedo.”
“You actually eat that?”