Smells. Discovery. Culture. And why the durian is a scientific marvel.
In many cultures across Southeast Asia, the durian fruit is considered the king of fruits. It is revered for its imposing spiky shell, complex taste, and amazing aroma. It is eaten on its own or used in delicious dishes and desserts
But if you are not from one of these cultures, it is likely you will not feel the same about the durian’s taste and aroma. More often than not, people think it is a powerful stench that smells like gym socks. The Guardian even calls it the world’s smelliest fruit.
The durian is thus an interesting case study in cultural differences and acquired tastes. It might even be a study in genetic differences because even those within the same culture may demonstrate distinct preferences.
That may be why Smithsonian magazine calls the durian a scientific marvel. A major reason is that scientists at the German Research Center for Food Chemistry have made some amazing discoveries about the fruit. Using a mass spectrometer and gas chromatograph, they
“…pinpointed 50 discrete compounds in the fruit responsible for its uncommon aroma. Those compounds included eight that hadn’t been detected in durians before — and four compounds that had been completely unknown to science. Their analysis suggests that it is not any single compound but instead the mixture of different chemicals that produces the fruit’s powerful stench.”
What is intriguing is many of the individual compounds actually smell like other foods we know. These include honey, roasted onion, caramel and rotten eggs. When they combine to give us the characteristic smell of durian though, it is a completely new aroma/stench (pick the one that applies to you).
How and why this happens continues to be a scientific marvel and mystery. What it does demonstrate is how complex our sense of smell is (it can detect tiny amounts of millions of volatile compounds — see the details in the 1-Minute NomNom “Nose job“).
It makes us wonder too. If our sense of smell was the result of an evolutionary response to keep us safe (see the same 1-Minute NomNom), what do different cultures’ responses to the durian suggest about how we evolved biologically (or perhaps culturally too)?
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