How to Choose and Cut a Durian, According to a Grower

In the world of delicacies, few enjoy the same fame or notoriety as the durian. Often referred to as the “king of fruits,” the tropical plant is generating widespread enthusiasm, particularly in its native Southeast Asia, where it’s found in myriad dishes such as shaved ice, cakes, cream puffs, and even pizza. Even people who don’t necessarily know how to cut a durian’s famously tough outer shell are familiar with the decadence of the meat inside.

It’s hard to forget that first encounter with durian. When I was in middle school, I saw one on my uncle’s kitchen counter and couldn’t look away, intimidated by the giant fruit’s menacingly prickly skin. But when he broke open the tough exterior and scooped the smooth flesh out of the rump, I sampled a small spoonful of it – and was entranced. The fruit was so creamy and buttery it almost tasted like pudding. My uncle then placed a portion of durian meat in a glass container and placed it in the freezer. When we pulled it out a few hours later, the frozen fruit’s texture had become even more heavenly, similar to ice cream.

durian meat how to eat durian

Courtesy of 99 Ancient Trees

Not everyone would agree. Durian is perhaps one of the most controversial flavors out there; The fruit has a notoriously strong odor attributed to odor-causing genetics, and while many find it pleasant or simply neutral (my colleague Kat Craddock aptly described it as “similar to melon”), critics find its scent repulsive at best and nauseating at worst. In fact, so many people fall into the latter camp that many transit systems, hotels, and other public spaces across Southeast Asia have “No Durian” signs posted.

However, I encourage you not to be put off by over-the-top comments about its scent. The smell and taste are bold and complex, and for durian lovers (like me), the fruit’s milky custard notes outweigh its sulphurous musk.

When I visited Kelvin Tan, co-owner of durian shop 99 Old Trees in Singapore, he taught me that not all durians are created equal and that it takes a little know-how to select a specimen that’s fragrant and sweet rather than excessively fetid or bitter. He also encouraged me not to be discouraged from the task of slicing; With the right tools and a little practiced precision, the rewards of luscious durian meat are within reach. Here’s how to unlock the potential of this unique flavor and reap even the prickliest of fruit, based on tried-and-true guidelines from a durian pro.

What you need (materials, tools, ingredients, cooking utensils etc.)

  • large, sharp knife (like a chef’s knife or cleaver)
  • thick kitchen gloves and/or tea towels

STEP 1: Choose a strain.

There are many commercially grown durian varieties on the market today, but Mao Shan Wang, also known as Musang King, is arguably the most desirable. Not only does the pulp-to-pod ratio tend to be higher than other varieties, the pulp is also particularly creamy and sweet.

The Sultan variety offers a milder, more balanced flavor with just a hint of bitterness. “A lot of durian connoisseurs in Singapore are actually looking for that bitter taste,” notes Tan. If the weather conditions are right, the pulp can even begin to ferment, producing a slight alcoholic aftertaste, “like biting into tiramisu,” he adds.

Other popular varieties include the super-sweet, orange-tinged Red Shrimp and the dry named D101, known for its gentle sweetness and buttery texture.

Most of the world’s durians come from Thailand and Malaysia, where the fruit is available fresh during two seasons, June to September and December to February. In Thailand, growers typically pick their crops straight from the tree, while in Malaysia growers traditionally wait for the ripe fruit to fall to the ground. Yi-Jun Loh, the Malaysia-based food writer behind the Jun & Tonic blog, suggests durian newbies start with strains from Thailand, which he finds less pungent and with a more floral, fruity flavor.

If you happen to have a specialty retailer near you, this is the best place to find multiple varieties and fresh, quality fruit. Otherwise, visit your local Asian supermarket to see if they stock durian, or order online from a fruit supplier.

STEP 2: Look for visual clues.

When choosing your durian, Tan recommends looking for specimens with slightly green, gray, or brown skins. When the skin turns yellow or black, it is a sign that the fruit is getting old.

It is also important to identify cracks in the shell. “If there are slight hair-like cracks, that’s pretty normal. But if you see big cracks, especially horizontal ones, that’s a total no-no,” Tan explains. Dark spots are another red flag as they may be wormholes.

Another factor to consider: symmetrically shaped durians tend to be easier to open.

If your local stores only carry durian pulp that has already been removed from the shell, look for a slightly crumpled texture. “It’s an indication that the fruit is fully ripe and soft and creamy on the inside,” says Tan. On the other hand, if the surface of the flesh is smooth and “looks like a potato,” the flesh is likely hard, unripe, and tasteless.

STEP 3: Cut open the durian.

Once you’ve picked your durian, identify the faint lines emanating from the base of the fruit (opposite the stem end). There are usually five star-shaped seams that indicate where the multiple meat pods are located inside. The shell tears most easily at these seams.

get your knife On a flat work surface, and using either gloves or a dishcloth to maintain a firm grip, hold the durian firmly with your non-dominant hand. Hold the knife in your dominant hand and if the durian still has the stem, cut it off. Next, firmly but gently push the knife point directly into the intersection of the sutures. Once the length of the blade has entered about three inches, gently wiggle the knife and twist it back and forth until the vertical seams begin to split along the shell. Carefully remove the knife from the fruit.

If one of the seams doesn’t rip completely, cut along it with your knife, starting with the incision you just made and working your way up to within a few inches of the stem.

Grasp the shell on either side of the deepest crack and pry apart. Do the same for each split.

STEP 4: Scoop out the flesh.

You should now see large lush mounds of durian. Scoop them out of the shell with a spoon. Trim and discard any imperfections or brown discoloration in the flesh; Remove and discard the seeds and discard the husk. And voila! Durian meat for your enjoyment.

STEP 5: Enjoy!

Once you’ve got your hands on your durian pulp, there are countless ways to eat it. Of course, if you love the raw taste, you can also eat it right away. But for many, the path to durian enlightenment is to use the fruit in a decadent dessert to downplay its pungency with other flavors and textures. For example, try incorporating the pulp into a delicious pastry: “You can use a basic banana bread recipe, but instead of bananas, put durian in it,” suggests Loh. “It’s going to be really, really nice.”

durian pandan layer cake chalk farm

Courtesy of Chalk Farm

To show people just how versatile and adorable the ingredient can be, Tan sells an extensive line of desserts with self-deprecating names. (I like Stinky Bomb, a cream puff filling filled with durian cream, and Stinky Roll, a sponge roll with fluffy sponge cake and durian pudding). Elsewhere in Singapore, famed Chalk Farm bakery folds the pulp into scorched durian cheesecake and durian salad, an inspired take on the classic kueh salad (a dessert made with sticky rice and coconut milk), while Emicakes specializes in durian-filled layer cakes, cream puffs.

Year after year, people across Asia, where the love for the fruit is widespread and ardent, eagerly await the durian season. If you’re new to durian, give it a try and you might get what all the fanfare is about. While I love the taste of pure durian aroma, sometimes a few tweaks help soften the fruit’s funk. That’s why I created this no-churn durian ice cream—it’s simple and straightforward and always reminds me of the first time I tasted the king of fruits.


No-churn durian ice cream

Recipe for durian ice cream

Photography by Paola + Murray; food styling by Olivia Mack McCool; Prop styling by Sophie Strangio

Get the recipe >

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