Falling in love with durian — in all its complex pungency — helped the author feel more strongly connected to her father's Singaporean roots. (Ekachai Chobphot / EyeEm)
urian. The King of Fruits. 榴蓮. The heart of my Singaporean Chinese family and the gateway to knowledge of my father’s culture. I grew up with no true understanding of Singapore. For those living in the Bay Area of the ‘80s and ‘90s, it barely even registered as a country. My father’s vague stories of his Singaporean past always read as being about China in my immature mind.
But then he would bring home a durian. A spiky ball that looks like a medieval weapon, with a pungent, pale yellow, fleshy interior. Dad would find a soft spot between those spikes to stab the fruit’s bottom and wedge it open with a knife and rice paddle. The strong rind once fought back, breaking the tip off of his massive chef’s knife.
It was serious work, but Dad is serious about durian.
Durian may be nature’s most misunderstood fruit. It grows high up in trees from precariously thin stems — a falling durian can literally kill you. Searching for the word “durian” online will dredge up articles on the fruit’s “terrible smell” and videos of people eating under-ripe specimens and gagging on camera for the likes.
Admittedly, to the untrained nose, durian smells strange, even rank. But the fruit also has an unexpectedly custardy texture and — with hundreds of varieties — complex flavor profiles akin to wine, coffee and chocolate. For those of us who hail durian as our king of fruits, the smell elicits an undeniable longing — for both the fruit itself and the cultural remembrance it represents. That feeling sticks with you, sits deep within your bones. It stayed with my father even as he crossed an ocean to live in the Bay Area.
My father immigrated to San Francisco in the ‘70s. While he and his siblings found camaraderie amongst other first- and second-generation Chinese here, they rarely encountered other Singaporeans. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 had only just reversed the racist immigration policies codified by the Asian Exclusion Act. And Singapore had just gone through its own transformation, separating from Malaysia that same year.
In his first decades in the States, Dad also never encountered his favorite tropical fruits — jackfruit, rambutan and the infamous durian. He speculates that many Bay Area folks at the time hadn’t even heard of durian. Even if they had, shopkeepers probably wouldn’t have wanted it in their stores because of the smell.
The first time Dad saw durian after he immigrated was on a road trip to Vancouver, Canada, in the early ‘80s. He and his sister Patty spotted them at a market. Elated, they bought one quickly, not noticing that it was previously frozen.
Was this sad, unripe durian an indicator of progress?
Indeed it was! My father estimates that he first saw (or maybe smelled) frozen whole durians in San Francisco not long after, in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, at a Chinese grocery on Clement Street. Seeing them brought back wistful memories of his own father bringing home durians by the basketful, and how he and his family would “eat it like crazy.” It was a different experience in Singapore, he explains. You would have a durian feast with family, opening several durians at once and pigging out. There were always mangosteens to balance out the durian’s 熱氣 — “yeet hay,” or build-up of internal heat, according to traditional Chinese medicine. Mangosteens are cooling by contrast.
Durian is too costly in the U.S. for it to have ever been an everyday occurrence for our family. But Dad would bring one home when he “got a craving,” he tells me. Whenever he did, my brother and I used to run away, hiding with my mom in our parents’ bedroom and leaving dad alone with his bounty. Eventually, we came around — first for a taste and now for handfuls of the delicious fruit.
What I love about durian is the tactile feeling of pulling out a seed, the luscious, custardy texture and the complex flavor. Whenever I take a bite, the room goes quiet while my mouth analyzes whether the durian is sweet or bitter, smooth or stringy, fruity or nutty. My fellow durian enthusiasts and I discuss which pieces are our favorites and trade bites — after all, it’s nearly always a social event.
A Newfound Appreciation
My first trip to Singapore in 2007 was a massive eye-opener. I thought my one ethnic identity was Cantonese, which felt ordinary in San Francisco, where Chinese Americans make up 21% of the population. Singapore, on the other hand, is a melting pot of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Eurasian. It’s a tropical island nation filled with exciting foods I’d never even heard of and rich cultures I barely recognized. How could this be part of my own identity?
Reality could not be further from how I had envisioned my father’s childhood. Government-subsidized public housing developments almost touching the clouds were nothing like the kampongs he described. I met dozens of family members that I’d never even heard of — great-aunts and uncles, first and second cousins. And instead of the simple choice of “durian or no durian” that I’d experienced in San Francisco, Singaporean durian came in endless, eye-popping varieties — D24, Musang King, XO and other names in Chinese that I couldn’t read.
What remained familiar were the family gatherings in the name of our king. On one of my first days there, we convened at a great-auntie’s flat to feast on durian and mangosteen. About a dozen of us across generations sat around in the summer heat with fans blasting. One of my dad’s cousins, Katherine, taught me how to open a mangosteen, which I quickly fell in love with. Each of us ate durian until we had our fill, then rested, satisfied, in the cool breeze of the fans.
Another of my dad’s cousins, Geraldine, brought us to a neighborhood durian stall, where she ordered more whole durians than there were people in our party because “each one has a different taste. You have to try many.” We had leftover durian for days.
I came back to SF with a newfound appreciation for my Singaporean heritage. This understanding even put my grandmother’s accent into perspective — I had always thought of it as a Chinese accent, when in fact it was Singaporean. I was finally part of the inside joke when my grandmother purchased a durian for our white elephant gift exchange. I now sought out connections to Singaporean culture wherever I went, and a big part of that was trying to eat durian as often as I could.
Thankfully, durian is widely available in the Bay these days, much to the delight of Dad and the rest of the family. You’ll find it everywhere from mom-and-pop Asian grocery stores to name-brand shops like H-Mart and even Costco. Tracy Goh, chef-owner of Damansara, a Malaysian restaurant in San Francisco, likes to buy hers through a specialty online ordering service called Year of the Durian.
“Compared to when I first arrived 10 years ago, the varieties have expanded beyond Thai Monthong and the occasional Malaysian Musang King,” Goh tells me. “And I am seeing more genuine appreciation for durian outside of the Southeast Asian community.”
In San Francisco alone, you can now find durian in ice cream from Marco Polo, chocolates from Socola, mooncakes from Pineapple King and desserts from Mango Medley. Socola even has a special mailing list for releases of their durian truffles. (Of course, I’m subscribed.) At the same time, a growing number of Singaporean and Malaysian restaurants have opened across the Bay to much fanfare, including Damansara, Dabao Singapore, Lion Dance Cafe and Satay by the Bay.
The durian renaissance has been fueled in part by the 2004 U.S.-Singapore Free Trade Agreement and the fact that many more Singaporeans have come to this country to study in the past decade. Here in the Bay Area, where Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are the fastest growing demographic, new immigration always leads to a mixing of cultures and exposure to new foods.
My love of durian ties me back to my Singaporean culture. It’s a secret language that I use to find my people. As Goh puts it, “I used to feel more compelled to give a whole crash course on my ‘complicated’ identity. I no longer feel the need to explain my existence in this country to someone who questions it.”
Instead, I might just offer you some durian. For me, the fruit is a litmus test for those who hope to understand the Singaporean part of my identity. If I introduce someone to durian and they’re not even willing to try it, they might never understand me.
Now, even my cat loves durian! And whenever I feel the tug of nostalgia, I know I don’t have to go far. If I’m lucky, Dad will call to say that he brought a durian home. He’s just waiting for me and my brother to come over.
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