"It had to look like a pineapple," ruled mother when we were choosing durians. That was back in the stagecoach days, before cellophane and styrofoam sanitised the king of fruits to be sold in the supermarket aisles.
That was also when the king of stink with spiky shell was still a seasonal attraction, in August and December.
Twice a year, we would look forward to the odious odour from the neighbourhood durian seller, with his pyramid of green "porcupines", huge baskets for the husks, and large rough brown paperbags for bulk buys.
“We did this in faith; faith that could move not only a mountain of durians in our house, but it also guaranteed none of us woke up with a sore throat from the 'heaty' fruit."
The tools of his bi-annual trade were thick gloves, a spatulate knife, and string to tie single purchases.
The familiar barter cries would be heard in the evenings by the street corner:
"Ho boh?" (Hokkien for "Good or not?") the buyer would ask.
"Pow chia!" ("Guaranteed to be good!") the seller would claim.
You took your chances with the cheap ones; out of 10 that were unopened, there were maybe six hits. You could either eat the fruit on the spot or go home with the treat.
For a couple of dollars more, the hawker would prise it open. You were then invited to stick a finger in, leave your print on soft yielding flesh. If it was a poor choice, he would toss it, and move on to the next durian until the customer was satisfied. That was how we closed a durian deal then.
Seasoned buyers, too, had their methods: Mother's first rule about its shape always started our picking process.
The next rule was to pick those with thorns far apart, spread wide. This might work for choosing pale, light-coloured, bitter-tasting durians – I have noticed these to be the choice of older-generation durian eaters. It's possibly because they ate it at their mother's knees, and we all know mothers are never in favour of the sweet. The bitterer, the better, for me.
When buying, we would always watch the seller, for some might hold the durian in a manner that hides the brown spots (rotten) and show only the good segments. I always tell the seller "I live just there" (point) and will take back if it's spoilt.
Once home, we would lay down old newspapers and eat the durians off them.
Whether we ate one seed or all in the durian, mother always made us take a shell to the sink, fill with water and drink water from it. If we were kiasu (Hokkien for "fearful of losing out"), we would add a pinch of salt to the water. In lieu of salt, make a cross sign in the husk, then drink.
We did this in faith; faith that could move not only a mountain of durians in our house, but it also guaranteed none of us woke up with a sore throat from the "heaty" fruit – tied to a Chinese notion on the hot and cold forces flowing through our bodies and how the things we eat and drink affect the balance of this qi.
If we had leftovers, the flesh is fermented a little and stirred into santan (Malay for "coconut milk"), mixed with sambal, and eaten with rice. As for the seeds, don't boil them to turn the insides edible – that's a preparation method meant for jackfruit seeds, and that should be a seperate eating session.
Durian season comes around only so often – we would pass up on the jackfruit and take another walk around the durian plantation for more of the pungent king. Watch out though, if a durian falls and land on any part of your body, it means you've been declared to be a wicked person. You wouldn't want your intentions known, would you?
Sylvia Toh Paik Choo wanted to become an opera-singing sportswoman, but someone else was using the microphone and the hurdle, so she writes for a living – which explains why she eats so badly.