Alfred Russell Wallace on Durian, the “King of Fruits”

In Dr. Richard Corlett’s first talk at AFEC, he gave a broad overview of the biogeography of Tropical East Asia (conveniently, TEA). During the talk, he cited Alfred Russell Wallace extensively, and said that he was inspired to travel to TEA from England after reading Wallace’s writing. Since then, I’ve wanted to read The Malay Archipelago (full text here), and I finally got a start on it during my long return journey from China. As you might imagine, it’s a wonderful book for all sorts of reasons. It’s too good to not share, so I’ll probably be posting a lot of different sections as I read through it.

To begin, here is Wallace’s eloquent eulogy for the Durian:

“The banks of the Sarawak River are everywhere covered with fruit trees, which supply the Dyaks with a great deal of their food. The Mangosteen, Lansat, Rambutan, Jack, Jambou, and Blimbing, are all abundant; but most abundant and most esteemed is the Durian, a fruit about which very little is known in England, but which both by natives and Europeans in the Malay Archipelago is reckoned superior to all others. The old traveller Linschott, writing in 1599, says: “It is of such an excellent taste that it surpasses in flavour all the other fruits of the world, according to those who have tasted it.” And Doctor Paludanus adds: “This fruit is of a hot and humid nature. To those not used to it, it seems at first to smell like rotten onions, but immediately when they have tasted it, they prefer it to all other food. The natives give it honourable titles, exalt it, and make verses on it.” When brought into a house the smell is often so offensive that some persons can never bear to taste it. This was my own case when I first tried it in Malacca, but in Borneo I found a ripe fruit on the ground, and, eating it out of doors, I at once became a confirmed Durian eater. 

The Durian grows on a large and lofty forest tree, somewhat resembling an elm in its general character, but with a more smooth and scaly bark. The fruit is round or slightly oval, about the size of a large cocoanut, of a green colour, and covered all over with short stout spines the bases of which touch each other, and are consequently somewhat hexagonal, while the points are very strong and sharp. It is so completely armed, that if the stalk is broken off it is a difficult matter to lift one from the ground. The outer rind is so thick and tough, that from whatever height it may fall it is never broken. From the base to the apex five very faint lines may be traced, over which the spines arch a little; these are the sutures of the carpels, and show where the fruit may be divided with a heavy knife and a strong hand. The five cells are satiny white within, and are each filled with an oval mass of cream-coloured pulp, imbedded in which are two or three seeds about the size of chestnuts. This pulp is the eatable part, and its consistency and flavour are indescribable. A rich butter-like custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but intermingled with it come wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, brown sherry, and other incongruities. Then there is a rich glutinous smoothness in the pulp which nothing else possesses, but which adds to its delicacy. It is neither acid, nor sweet, nor juicy; yet one feels the want of none of these qualities, for it is perfect as it is. It produces no nausea or other bad effect, and the more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop. In fact to eat Durians is a new sensation, worth a voyage to the East to experience.

When the fruit is ripe it falls of itself, and the only way to eat Durians in perfection is to get them as they fall; and the smell is then less overpowering. When unripe, it makes a very good vegetable if cooked, and it is also eaten by the Dyaks raw. In a good fruit season large quantities are preserved salted, in jars and bamboos, and kept the year round, when it acquires a most disgusting odour to Europeans, but the Dyaks appreciate it highly as a relish with their rice. There are in the forest two varieties of wild Durians with much smaller fruits, one of them orange-coloured inside; and these are probably the origin of the large and fine Durians, which are never found wild. It would not, perhaps, be correct to say that the Durian is the best of all fruits, because it cannot supply the place of the subacid juicy kinds, such as the orange, grape, mango, and mangosteen, whose refreshing and cooling qualities are so wholesome and grateful; but as producing a food of the most exquisite flavour, it is unsurpassed. If I had to fix on two only, as representing the perfection of the two classes, I should certainly choose the Durian and the Orange as the king and queen of fruits.

The Durian is, however, sometimes dangerous. When the fruit begins to ripen it falls daily and almost hourly, and accidents not unfrequently happen to persons walking or working under the trees. When a Durian strikes a man in its fall, it produces a dreadful wound, the strong spines tearing open the flesh, while the blow itself is very heavy; but from this very circumstance death rarely ensues, the copious effusion of blood preventing the inflammation which might otherwise take place. A Dyak chief informed me that he had been struck down by a Durian falling on his head, which he thought would certainly have caused his death, yet he recovered in a very short time.

Poets and moralists, judging from our English trees and fruits, have thought that small fruits always grew on lofty trees, so that their fall should be harmless to man, while the large ones trailed on the ground. Two of the largest and heaviest fruits known, however, the Brazil-nut fruit (Bertholletia) and Durian, grow on lofty forest trees, from which they fall as soon as they are ripe, and often wound or kill the native inhabitants. From this we may learn two things: first, not to draw general conclusions from a very partial view of nature; and secondly, that trees and fruits, no less than the varied productions of the animal kingdom, do not appear to be organized with exclusive reference to the use and convenience of man.”

Wasse.

SHOCKINGLY, neither the frozen durian I’ve had in Minnesota nor the durian flavoured McFlurry I was given in Singapore did this king of fruits much justice. I guess I need to get back to TEA and experience it correctly. But maybe I won’t be able to any way, given the apparent repulsion to the King.

Visit Wallace Online for a complete set of Wallace’s writing!

And finally, I want to thank Dr. Corlett for inspiring me to finally read Wallace. I enjoy Dr. Corlett’s writing very much as well (what’s not to love about solid science combined with the perfect amount of wit and “snark?”) — here’s his writings on google scholar.

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