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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

It's durian season. Would you try it?

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It looks like I've been in the mood for not-so-photogenic food.  There was that rather ugly, if delicious, salad, and now this.  Adding insult to injury (quite likely injury at that, can't you see the thorns?) it also stinks to high heavens.  You know what I'm talking about here, yes?  It's durian season!  I've been seeing those big, thorny, smelly fruits every time I was at a Chinese market, and I finally took one home a couple days ago.

Durians are one of those strong flavors that doesn't inspire apathy: one either adores it or abhor it totally.  Ambrosia to some and, um, well, ass--as my friend Katy succinctly put it--to others.  Having grown up in Thailand, you can guess which side of that divide I belong.  Even if you haven't tried it yourself, I'm sure you have heard of it.

When I lived in Thailand, the arrival of durian season signaled the beginning of summer, the blissful end of long-suffered school year, and days on the seaside where salty air mingled with the sweet scent of my favorite dessert, Khao Niew Durian, sweet sticky rice bathed in a custardy sauce made with durian, coconut milk, and sweet palm sugar. 

Even in the best of circumstances--like having high-quality, fresh, never frozen durians to eat--durians can be overpowering enough, but these frozen ones can get worse.  The delicate flesh of the durian fruits also suffer after having been frozen, turning into practically mush once thawed.  I myself find frozen durians unfit to eat outright, but it's just perfect for the Khao Niew Durian.      

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Sweet Sticky Rice with Durian and Coconut Milk Sauce

For the sweet sticky rice
3 cups sticky rice (Make sure you buy "sticky" rice or glutinous rice rather than normal long grain or jasmine rice.)
2 cups coconut milk
1 cup sugar
1-2 tsp salt, to taste

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Soak the uncooked rice for at least three hours before cooking.  Put the rice in a large bowl and cover with water up to about two inches over the rice.

I've seen people use all kinds of special implements to steam sticky rice.  I've recently found the easiest and perhaps most perfect solution.  I soak the rice grains, drain on a metal strainer--one of those with a little hook on one end and a handle on another so you can place it on top of a pot with it falling in.  Then, place the strainer on top of a deep pot filled about a quarter of the way up with water.  Put the lid over the the pot, turn the heat on high and bring the water to a boil.  Continue to steam for 15-20, or until the rice grains are just al dente.

Make sure the boiling water doesn't touch the rice. You probably should start checking after about 15 minutes. The rice should be very nearly done, but not completely cooked through--similar to the texture of al dente pasta.

While the rice is steaming, heat the coconut milk in a medium pot.  Add the sugar and salt and bring to a simmer until the sugar is completely dissolved.  Taste the mixture. The sweetened coconut milk should be a little sweeter than what you want your finished sticky rice to be. You should also be able to taste the salt. Add more salt if needed. Keep this mixture heated, it must be hot when the rice is ready.

When the rice is ready, add it to the pot with coconut milk.  Stir gently to mix well.  Cover and let rest for 15 minutes so the rice completely absorb the coconut milk before serving.

For the durian and coconut milk sauce.

1 Durian
2 cups coconut milk
1/2 cup palm sugar, chopped
1/2-1 tsp of salt

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Getting durian meat out of the hard, thorny husk is more daunting and difficult, really.  You first must understand the physiology of durian: it has hard, thorny husk covering segments of seed pods--think orange segments but replacing the bitter white pith with the thorny husk.  When you look carefully at a durian, you can clearly see the undulation on the patterns on the husk itself, with the shape of the seed pod clearly visible.  All you have to do is use a very sharp knife to cut along both sides of each one and just pull open the husk to reveal the sweet flesh inside.  This is easier done than explained, actually.  Try it once and you'll understand perfectly what I meant. 

Keep cutting along the shape of each seed pod, pulling out the durian flesh from each one and set aside.  Once you have all the flesh out, you can easily separate the durian meat from the hard pits.  Just pull the meat off the pit carefully and discard the pits.

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In a medium pot, bring the coconut milk, salt and the palm sugar to a simmer.  Stir until the sugar is completely dissolved.  Add the durian flesh to the pot and stir gently.  Bring the pot back to a simmer.  Check the seasoning, you may need a bit more sugar or a bit more salt.  Once done, remove from heat.

To serve, put a bit of the sweet sticky rice into a small bowl.  Spoon some of the durian and coconut milk sauce over to sticky rice and serve.



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