The "king of fruits" wins loyal subjects or slays them with a single sniff.
Depending on who's tasting — and talking about — this distinctive, thorn-covered specimen, durian entices with a texture like custard, reminiscent of almonds, or it sears sinuses with an odor of turpentine and flavor of rotting onions.
Durian, to Central Point native Lindsay Gasik, tastes like "the best vanilla ice cream in the world."
"It's sweet and fatty like ice cream is."
Three years after her introduction to the exotic edible, Gasik plotted a yearlong course through Southeast Asia to locate as many types of durian as possible and consume them as often as she could.
"I went for three days once with only durian."
Gasik's husband, 29-year-old Rob Culclasure, originated the idea of traveling the "durian trail" — as it's known to aficionados — and blogging in lieu of emailing updates to family and friends. The experience gave Gasik, 23, a chance to write regularly since abandoning a journalism major for Spanish at University of Oregon.
"This is just sort of our own National Geographic trip," she says. "I just thought the fruit was very intriguing."
The result is "Year of the Durian," Gasik's gastronomic guide through Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. Planning her return to the Rogue Valley next week, the 2007 St. Mary's School graduate says she intends to expand the blog into a book this year.
"The durian ended up taking us places that we never would have gone on our own."
Crisscrossing Southeast Asia from Jan. 10 to Dec. 21 last year on a schedule roughly coinciding with durian's season in each locale, the couple began their odyssey on Indonesia's off-the-beaten-path island of Sumatra. They first encountered traffic, pollution and language barriers. But the country's largest island also boasts fresh durian year-round.
"Fresh durian is very different — radically different — from frozen durian," says Culclasure of fruits sold at Asian grocers in the United States, constituting most Americans' exposure to durian.
And the taste, the couple confirmed, differs by variety, almost all of which are cultivated. They say the most reliably delicious durian is grown in Malaysia, which alone boasts 200 some types — and all-you-can-eat durian buffets.
Borneo offers the most diversity among durian, some of them wild, reached only by canoe or longboat into the jungle. The couple also went looking for the dozen or so fruits — some sources say about two dozen — that are similar to durian but, in fact, are separate species.
Gasik and Culclasure saw durian devotees debate for five minutes whether portions near the fruit's top or bottom are better. Preferences for durian consumption range from when flesh is extremely unripe and as rubbery as raw potato, to after it's turned mushy and fermented, says Culclasure.
Eating durian almost every day over the past year, the couple now feel compelled to improve the fruit's image, tarnished by so many food-travel television hosts. In its native climate, durian cut unripe from a tree can lose its grassy, coffee-like aroma to rot in a day, says Gasik.
"If it's gotten old, it stinks," she says. "A good durian shouldn't smell bad."
"This is a healthy food that is incredibly delicious," says Culclasure. "If (people) enjoy the frozen ones, there's a whole world awaiting them."
The couple plan to share travel highlights and tales of durian at a Saturday lecture in Los Angeles. See www.meetup.com/Fruitluck/events/95947862. Track down durian to try these recipes from www.yearofthedurian.com.
Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.