Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - November 17, 2017
“... Smell my feet; give me something good to eat”
Durians came up in our conversation the other day. Husband Art mentioned them because he had heard about the fruit on a BBC radio broadcast.
I did some digging.
Now that I know more, I’m not so sure I really wanted to know more!
Remember the smell of sweaty socks from gym class? Ever have an onion begin to rot in the fridge? The spiky-shelled durian, native to many Southeast Asian countries, has been described as smelling like those. Other comparisons include turpentine and raw sewage.
But not only do some people eat them; many folks downright crave them.
According to the report - “Singapore scientists reveal origins of durian’s pungent aroma” - some people regard the durian as having a sweet aroma. Others find it overpoweringly unpleasant.
The discovery means there’s a possibility of creating the fruit without its stinky smell. Durian fans want no part of it, afraid it would take away its uniqueness.
Still, any fruit banned from airplanes or from being eaten in some outdoor spaces might benefit from a little genetic modification.
My friend Bryce was in Singapore recently. He said he smelled durians at the fruit stand in front of the place he stayed. I asked his opinion of the aroma. “Nasty!” was his reply.
I was impressed, however, when he confessed to eating durian in Vietnam and Cambodia years ago.
“I don’t recall that the taste was so bad, but the smell of it in the fruit stands is bad - and it’s always in a hot, humid climate.”
I’ve had similar experiences in France. The country known for its great cuisine has some cheeses I couldn’t bear to taste. Art too. Three summers ago, our friend Gérard offered us one that Art took one whiff of and said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Another French cheese - Époisses de Bourgogne - apparently takes the prize for smelliness. On PBS’s “A Matter of Taste,” the narrator said Époisses is made in the village of the same name in eastern France. He said the cheese is made from cow’s milk and then washed in an unaged brandy that gives it “a funky, sweaty aroma,” resulting in the growth of bacteria that are similar to the ones found on the feet.
While it has been banned from public transport in France, some people like it, describing its taste as “sharp, garlicky, warm deliciousness.”
These experiences with durian and cheese show that taste is an individual thing. But we all share the same components of taste. When I was in school, we learned about sweet, salty, sour and bitter taste receptors on our tongues. But scientists now agreed there is a fifth taste called “umami.” The kind of deliciousness some people enjoy in Époisses cheese activates the umami receptors.
In 1908, Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda found something that differed from the four well-known tastes. It was common in tomatoes, cheese and meat. He discovered the ingredient was glutamic acid, but he decided to rename it. He called it “umami,” which means “delicious” or “yummy” in Japanese.
It took scientists nearly a century to discover the umami sensors in our mouth. In 2007, NPR’s Morning Edition devoted an entire episode to umami. In that episode, “Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter ... and Umami,” Robert Krulwich reported that glutamate is found in most living things, but when they die or are cooked, the glutamate molecules begin to break apart.
“This can happen on a stove when you cook meat, over time when you age a Parmesan cheese, by fermentation as in soy sauce or under the sun as a tomato ripens,” he said. “When glutamate becomes L-glutamate, that's when things get ‘delicious.’”
“A Matter of Taste” gave another example of that deliciousness. In the ancient oak forests of southwest Spain, pigs roam freely under the trees eating the acorns along the way. The acorns help them put on a thick layer of fat. The fat is so thick, in fact, that once a pig is slaughtered and the meat is cured, people can keep it inside for three years. The longer meat cures, the greater the build-up of L-glutamate. According to the show, we are “hard-wired to enjoy it - to build our bodies.”
Once I started looking for information about umami, I was surprised to learn that there’s an Umami Information Center website. And I was also surprised when I saw a Facebook post last week from nephew Michael, who said he and his wife Kristina were going to the Umami Bowl restaurant in Salina, Kansas. I had no idea there was such a restaurant only an hour away. I asked Kristina what it was like:
It’s super yummy!!! Basically, you choose a starch first (rice- jasmine or brown or rice noodles), then a protein like beef, pork, chicken or edamame. Then you can add veggies like garlicky green beans or eggplant, squash and some others. Next is a sauce of your choosing. They have a ginger, a curry, a Thai peanut, and a dragon sauce (super hot!) Then you can garnish with herbs, basil, homemade kimchi or ginger. And ta-da! It’s a crazy awesome Asian fusion dish! I’ve never tasted anything like it, but it’s my new addiction.
Foods may be thought of as chemicals that stimulate our five taste receptors to varying degrees. While I may like a particular combination, someone else may not. Our visiting German friends wanted to try root beer because of the name. But because it was long used to flavor medications in Germany, they took one taste and they were done.
When smell is added to taste, it really becomes complicated. With fresh bread, for many of us, the smell is a big part of the enjoyment. In contrast, Art doesn’t like the smell of Limburger cheese, but enjoys the taste.
So, who knows? Maybe if I tried it, I’d like durian. Still, there will not be any at our Thanksgiving table this year. It’s hard to imagine that something I’d find good to eat would also smell like feet!
Left: photo of a durian from Wikipedia. The soft inside is what durian afficionados relish; right: Époisses de Bourgogne cheese from the www.ijustwanttoeat.com website.