Why Durian Smells Bad

Dispelling yet another mystery surrounding the odiferous, spiky fruit

Yes, they really do smell that bad. (Photo Modified: Flickr/hafiz issadeen/CC4.0)

In light of soaring temperatures across much of the nation, and with summer in full swing, we thought this would be an opportune time to discuss why durian smells so bad.

The late Julia F. Morton, research professor of biology and director of the Morton Collectanea at the University of Miami, spent her career studying commercially valued plants of notable origin and was a respected expert in her field throughout the world. One of these plants was the infamous durian. Morton wrote in considerable detail about the plant in her pivotal and still widely used reference book Fruits of Warm Climates, published in 1987. The 500-page book contains a wealth of information on all kinds of tropical and subtropical exotic fruit for people who might want to try their hand at growing them (that is, assuming they live in a tropical climate).

According to Morton, the source of durian's signature aroma is thought to be a compound called indole, which is notable for its ability to stop the growth of bacteria dead in its tracks. This, though, isn't surprising, since the smell of durian tends to stop any living thing dead in its tracks. However, that's not the most interesting part. You see, indoles are a byproduct of digestion, formed when proteins containing tryptophan (the amino acid found in turkey meat that makes people sleepy) are broken down. They are found in the intestines and in feces.

Well, that sure goes a long way toward explaining the offending odor, described by various people as a combination of "garlic, Limburger cheese, and some spicy sort of resin" (Otis W. Barrett, plant explorer), having "occasional wafts … that call to mind cream cheese, onion-sauce, sherry wine, and other incongruous dishes" (Alfred Russel Wallace, biologist and collaborator with Charles Darwin), and having the potential to make your breath "smell as if you'd been French-kissing your dead grandmother" (Anthony Bourdain, no introduction necessary).

So, in light of all this, why would anyone deign to consume this fruit? Well, the flesh is widely believed to be an aphrodisiac. There's an old saying in Malay (whose equivalent is the same in Indonesian): "Duren jatuh, sarong naik." Translation: When durians fall, sarongs rise.

Click here to see My First Time with Durian.

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Will Budiaman is the Recipe Editor at The Daily Meal. Follow him on Twitter @WillBudiaman.