21 Attempts to Describe the Taste of Durian, the World’s Smelliest Fruit
By Lucas Reilly
The durian is a beloved delicacy in Malaysia, Singapore, and other parts of Southeast Asia. Its taste and smell, however, take some getting used to. The creamy fruit is notoriously potent—in fact, it’s so smelly that Singapore’s public transit systems tell passengers not to bring them onto subways or buses.
And yet, despite its stinky reputation, it can be found practically everywhere: In curries, cakes, and even ice cream. For visitors, biting into the fruit can be an utterly confusing and contradictory experience. Here are some outsider opinions from the past 400 years.
1. “None of ours can approach it”
In 1662, Jacques de Bourges, a missionary in Ayutthaya, Thailand (then Siam), wrote of the durian, “The flesh is as white as snow, exceeds in delicacy of taste of all our best European fruits, and none of ours can approach it.”
2. “Stale vomit”
According to The Oxford Companion to Food, “Comparisons have been made with the civet cat, sewage, stale vomit, onions, and cheese; while one disaffected visitor to Indonesia declared that the eating of the flesh was not much different from having to consume used surgical swabs.”
3. “Deeply musky”
Frommer’s Guide to Malaysia notes that the durian is “a large green, spiky fruit that, when cut open, smells worse than old tennis shoes. ... In case you're curious, the fruit has a creamy texture and tastes lightly sweet and deeply musky.”
“[I]ts odor is best described as pig-sh*t, turpentine, and onions, garnished with a gym sock,” food writer Richard Sterling has opined. “It can be smelled from yards away.”
5. “The sacrifice of self-respect”
In the words of 19th-century journalist Bayard Taylor, durian is, “Of all fruits, at first the most intolerable but said by those who have smothered their prejudices, to be of all fruits, at last, the most indispensable. When it is brought to you at first, you clamor till it is removed; if there are durians in the next room to you, you cannot sleep. Chloride of lime and disinfectants seem to be its necessary remedy. To eat it, seems to be the sacrifice of self respect; but endure it for a while, with closed nostrils, taste it once or twice, and you will cry for durians thenceforth, even—I blush to write it—even before the glorious [mangosteen].”
6. “Like a bunch of dead cats”
“To anyone who doesn’t like durian it smells like a bunch of dead cats,” said Bangkok-based food writer Bob Halliday. “But as you get to appreciate durian, the smell is not offensive at all. It’s attractive. It makes you drool like a mastiff.”
7. “Vomit-flavored custard”
The Rough Guide to Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei says diners have described durian’s taste as comparable to “vomit-flavored custard.”
8. “Rotten eggs”
Food writer Robb Walsh, no stranger to strange cuisine, described his experience eating durian as follows: “The smell of rotten eggs is so overwhelming. I suppress a gag reaction as I take a bite.”
9. “Beaten all the cordon bleue out of heaven and earth”
“Like all the good things in Nature … durian is indescribable,” Australian naturalist Edmund J. Banfield recounts a good friend saying of the fruit. ”It is meat and drink and an unrivalled delicacy besides, and you may gorge to repletion and never have cause for penitence. It is the one case where Nature has tried her hand at the culinary art and beaten all the CORDON BLEUE [sic] out of heaven and earth.”
10. “Sewer-gas overtone”
Anthropologist Maxine E. McBrinn described durian as having a “sewer-gas overtone.”
11. “Like pungent, runny French cheese”
Anthony Bourdain, late chef and host of Parts Unknown, memorably said that durian tasted “like pungent, runny French cheese,” adding, “Your breath will smell as if you’d been French kissing your dead grandmother.”
12. “Like the flesh of some animal in a state of putrefaction”
“On first tasting it, I thought it like the flesh of some animal in a state of putrefaction, but after four or five trials I found the aroma exquisite,” French naturalist Henri Mouhot wrote in Travels in the Central Parts of Indo-China: Siam, Cambodia, and Laos, During the Years 1858, 1859, and 1860.
13. “Eating ice cream in an outhouse”
In his book Strange Foods, Jerry Hopkins notes that people have described the experience of dining on durian as comparable to “eating ice cream in an outhouse.”
14. “I have never tasted anything more delicious”
“I must say that I have never tasted anything more delicious,” Italian explorer Giovanni Battista Cerruti wrote in 1908's My Friends the Savages. “But not everyone can enjoy or appreciate this strange fruit for the disgusting smell that distinguishes it and that is apt to cause nausea to a weak stomach. Imagine to have under your nose a heap of rotten onion and you will still have but a faint idea of the insupportable odor which emanates from these trees and when its fruit is opened the offensive smell becomes even stronger.”
15. “Like completely rotten mushy onions”
“It tastes like completely rotten mushy onions,” culinary personality Andrew Zimmern said of durian. “This is too much for me.” He spit it out.
16. “Like eating sweet raspberry blancmange in the lavatory”
A Clockwork Orange novelist Anthony Burgess said eating durian was “like eating sweet raspberry blancmange in the lavatory.”
17. “Occasional wafts of flavor that call to mind cream-cheese”
Alfred Russel Wallace—the 19th-century British naturalist who hit upon the idea of natural selection at the same time as Darwin—wrote of durian, “A rich custard highly flavored with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but there are occasional wafts of flavor that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes.”
18. “You will either be overcome ... or reject it outright”
“You will either be overcome, seduced by its powerful, declarative presence, or reject it outright,” Guardian journalist Monica Tan wrote of the fruit. “And run screaming.”
19. “Carrion in custard”
A “Governor of the Straits” quoted in 1903’s Hobson-Jobson: A glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases, and of kindred terms, etymological, historical, geographical and discursive said that durian tasted like “carrion in custard.”
20. “Onions and garlic and avocado and pineapple”
“It tastes like onions and garlic and avocado and pineapple, in a custard,” actress Jessica Chastain told late night host Jimmy Kimmel. She loves the fruit so much she actually snuck it into her hotel when she was shooting in Thailand, which was against the rules.
21. “There is no other fruit like it”
“Yes, I freely admit that when ripe it can smell like a dead animal. Yes, the fruit is difficult to handle, bearing likeness to a medieval weapon,” New York Times journalist Thomas Fuller wrote of the fruit. “But get down to the pale yellow, creamy flesh, and you’ll experience overtones of hazelnut, apricot, caramelized banana, and egg custard. That’s my attempt at describing durian. But words fail; there is no other fruit like it.”
A version of this story ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2023.