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Smell Tests
December/January 2016/17

All you can smell: A customer checking a durian for aroma (Glass and Mirror CC BY-SA 2.0)


I bought a durian for a party. I had made a Filipino dish, adobo, which is chicken cooked with vinegar, soy sauce, peppercorns, and bay leaves, and had bought the durian not really to eat but to provide atmosphere, a little bit like one of those Air Wick diffusers. It’s a large south-east Asian fruit, covered in thick, heavy, spiked skin, like an ankylosaur, and it has a famously insistent smell. It is banned from public transport in several countries. The cashier at the Loon Fung supermarket wrapped it in newspaper and warned me that I couldn’t get my money back if I changed my mind.

It had never occurred to me that you might buy a durian without knowing what you were getting into, because the challenge is clear even before you crack into it. The smell of our durian filled the house for a week. To me and most people at the party it smelled pretty good, if a bit mulchy, from the start — funky and rich and complicated, fruity, a little bit caramelly, undertones of stink in a compost-vegetable way. The fruit inside, by contrast, is delicate, almost custard-like. (All-you-can-eat durian buffets are a fixture in south-east Asia.) There are around 50 discrete chemicals in durian which combine to form the confusing and, to many, offputting stench: some are sulphurous or “skunky”, some honey and fruit notes, some are savoury, described as “roasted onion”, “cooked cabbage”, “soup seasoning”.

If this doesn’t sound appealing — well, different smells affect people differently. For some the rotten-egg note of durian overpowers the more conventional fruity and sweet elements. One of my sisters loves the smell of butter, especially melted butter, and another is nauseated by it. One likes the smell of charity shop clothes. Basmati rice, to me, is one of the most delicate and fragrant smells. I gutted two partridges a couple of weeks ago and the insides smelled awful (one had inflated with a nasty gas), but the birds were tender and delicate. Civilisation is pretty much a matter of letting things go the right kind of mouldy — see soy sauce, wine, cheese, sauerkraut, and Icelandic fermented shark (hakarl, sometimes called “rotten shark”). A character in the film American Hustle describes her favourite nail polish as “perfumey, but there’s also something rotten. I know that sounds crazy but I can’t get enough of it.” It’s a metaphor, probably, but also seems to be true.

Brillat-Savarin believed that “the taste and the sense of smell form but one sense, of which the mouth is the laboratory and the nose the chimney”, that “the nose plays the part of sentinel, and always cries ‘Who goes there?’” Acquired tastes are really acquired smells — what you are doing is persuading your nose, which may not want to cooperate, that it’s safe to eat the suspect item. Strong washed-rind cheeses generally have a milder taste than you would expect. Even hakarl, which smells powerfully of ammonia, isn’t so bad to actually eat. (Icelanders have it with aquavit, which I assume blocks out the worst.) Fish sauce (nuoc mam or nam pla) smells awful if you just stick your nose into it, but in cooking it’s always cut with lime juice or diluted in broth for a deep layer of umami. (The nicest and most complex-tasting is probably Red Boat, an “extra-virgin” fish sauce, £16 a bottle from their website.)

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