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The Delectable Desserts to Satisfy Your Craving This Durian Season

If I were ever to believe in a generous god, the existence of durian would be the first piece of evidence I cite.

I love that creamy, musky, somewhat mushy flesh that arrives on the tongue with as much subtlety as a brass-knuckle sucker punch to the snotbox. If I ever slip into a coma, I’m certain its saccharine funk could rouse me from my hospital bed. 

In addition to regularly purchasing it fresh from the market, I never pass up an opportunity to try durian in any form: pizza, potato chips, pastries, smoothies. If I lived in Singapore I would have tried durian whisky, ditto Malaysia and durian prophylactics. But Vietnam is at no loss for durian delicacies, so when tasked with writing this week’s Hẻm Gem, I didn’t have to think hard about what I would focus on.

Several years ago the Saigoneer office was perched above a market and I have fond memories of marching down the stairs when the mid-day writing willies struck and trying xôi sầu riêng for the first time. I remember it to be a glorious mingling of the charismatic fruit with soft sticky rice. 

It’s no coincidence that the rainy season coincides with peak durian harvest. It’s as if nature apologizes for the inconvenience of soggy shoes and delays waiting under bridges for storms to pass by filling our bellies with the world’s greatest fruit. So amidst a light smattering of showers, Saigoneer set out to revisit that most agreeable dish.

Chợ Cũ Tôn Thất Đạm market is one of the last wet markets in District 1 and it remains a glorious commotion of fresh fruits, food stalls, shops slinging T-shirts, electronics, cigarettes, liqueurs and imported soda. And nestled halfway down was the xôi lady. She offers a variety of different types of sticky rice, but we only had eyes for the durian. And on a whim, and because it was nearly 5pm, we scooped up some as well cơm rượu — glutinous rice balls served in diluted rice wine. 

Nostalgia can be a fickle emotion. We had remembered unwrapping banana leaves to reveal sticky rice strewn with chunks of durian flesh; a glorious conglomeration of earthy starch and sugar-dappled supple pulp, yet the product on offer when we went this time turned out to be plain xôi vò with mung bean atop which a lobe of ripe durian lay. The durian was decent, but hardly the best of the season. And while filling and nutritious, plain sticky rice merits no adoration for its extravagance. In this case it’s blandness offset, rather than truly complimented, the durian. Had the recipe changed or had our fond recollections of a halcyon afternoon stymied our memories? Uncertain. 

The cơm rượu at least was tasty. 

As we sat with our disappointing durian, we found ourselves discussing other durian dishes we’d enjoyed or had heard about. We scrolled Facebook pages pointing out shops around the city we’d visited or wanted to check out. A plan was hatched. The next afternoon we’d assemble some in the office; less a sampling and more of a durian celebration. By 4pm, this Hẻm Gem had officially gone off the rails.

The day of the impromptu durian feast started in a most auspicious way. My adopted mom called from in front of my house to bring me breakfast as she often does on account of being a loving Vietnamese mother who believes I need to gain 10 kilos. And like most doting parents, she is eager to indulge me with my favorite dishes. So this morning she came baring fresh durian with a side of sticky rice (and Vitamin C tablets to balance against its "hot" quality).

Hailing from the delta and mindful of the many rumors that surround pesticides and chemicals in durian cultivation, my mom has a sharp eye for durian. The one she gave me was stellar: pungent and bright with small seeds, soft but not slushy, smooth but not greasy. It would be the durian against which all other durian derivations of the day would be judged.

At 10:30am the first order arrived from The Jade Banh Sau Rieng. Earlier in the week a friend had gifted me an item she’d bought from them and I immediately checked out their Facebook. Going by the photos and videos, it’s a little too fancy to qualify as a typical Hẻm Gem which are typically mom-and-pop shops with word of mouth standing in for a marketing department. But beyond what I could glean from their online presence, I know nothing about The Jade. In the same way I don’t want to know the personal lives of my favorite musicians for fear of encountering some sordid detail or scandal, I don’t want to know anything about the providers of these scrumptious durian treats; its important to separate the art from the artist.

The first item from The Jade we sampled was the bánh crepe sầu riêng. A colorful pastry layer as thin as a paper kite wafting effortlessly in a cloudless sky conceals an airy cream atop a dense, decadent durian pulp. The spongy pancake provided a nice contrast to the creamy interior though the cream seemed a bit superfluous. Still, the high-quality durian and the spectacular texture made it a great hit and one of the best durian desserts I’ve ever sampled.

Next was the durian "ball." If the beautiful orb, twice as big as a baseball, is not perishable, it would certainly be worthy of being prominently displayed on one’s bookshelf. Yet, the taste may have suffered slightly for the sake of display. The thick layer of white cream provided a visually thrilling foil to the bright yellow durian pulp and cake beneath, but like the crepe, was unnecessary; perhaps even too much. Ultimately, the heavy richness detracted from the real star of the dish. So while the lobe of fruit on top added another dimension to it, at VND200,000 it’s impossible to justify over the more affordable crepes which are VND20,000 a piece when ordered in triplicate. 

Finally, we sampled Jade’s bánh Singapore sầu riêng tươi. One of my more pastry-proficient colleagues noted it resembled a French pâte à choux — a light dough made with butter, water, flour and eggs but no sugar. The dessert-dunce that I am, I thought it resembled a Wisconsin State Fair cream puff which is filled with sugar the way a beehive is filled with stingers. Ultimately I think my co-worker was right, as the flaky crust had an understated, almost bitter flavor. This balanced the rich pulp and cream that filled its cavernous interior. In my estimations, many desserts are far too sweet (what am I, a human or a hummingbird?!?), so this less aggressive reliance on sugar that showcased the unadulterated durian flavor appealed to me.

Letting durian receive all the gastronomic glory seemed to be the philosophy of two dishes we secured from a different, more Hẻm Gem-worthy location: District 5’s Quán Chè 613 - Chè Sầu Riêng Simi. The humble shop’s collection of Chinese and Taiwanese desserts includes a large selection of chè, flan, jellies, sticky rice and teas, several of which rely on durian. 

Unlike the previous day’s durian sticky rice, Chè 613 makes their version by adding durian pulp directly into the sticky rice during the steaming process. The flavor seeps into the rice the ways rumors ripple across a schoolyard. Shreds of the pure fruit remain as well, imbuing occasional bites with an extra burst of flavor. The nourishing rice seems to dial down durian’s sweeter tendencies allowing for a somewhat savory dish one could reasonably eat for breakfast or mid-day snack. Durian has long been relegated to dessert and promotion to the main meal certainly warrants celebration.

The durian chè, however, is certainly a dessert thanks to the sweet coconut cream in which tapioca balls and tatters of durian bob gracefully. Chè is somewhat of an umbrella term for a variety of Vietnamese desserts, most of them conjuring sentimental memories of humble hẻm-snacking. Relying on affordable, readily available ingredients they have been a staple for generations, they make a compelling case for the importance of simplicity and accessibility. Chè 613’s durian version isn’t fancy, placing no diamonds on a spiderweb, so to speak. For just VND22,000 one gets an ample, refreshing portion that has one longing for a plastic stool and a time when life was no more complicated than cartoons and elementary school assignments.

In the brief period between licking the chè spoon clean and the inevitable crash landing that would follow the five-item feast's sugar rush, I had a moment to search for meaning in the day’s durian indulgence. It hadn’t been an attempt to identify Saigon’s best durian dish (that task would require months and months of consumption) but it certainly offered a few worth checking out. It did reinforce some of my long-held beliefs including the lack of need to clutter a durian dish with too many accouterments and the philosophy that less is more when it comes to sugar, but these are personal preferences. Perhaps the most salient realization came the next morning. Despite our greatest efforts, the Saigoneer fridge was still stuffed with portions of each durian item. So what would I reach for to first? Plain durian. Just a nice chilled piece of an inarguably top-tier food. There remains no better cure for a durian craving than simply durian.