Tealeaves Folio



Durian: King of Fruits or Disgusting?

Humans can distinguish at least one trillion distinct smells, yet many people find it difficult to precisely describe them. Due to this, the world of aroma has traditionally borrowed its language from the other senses.


Understanding that inclusivity is in the nature of tea, how can we use the principles of Inclusive Design to ultimately enhance the ability to explore the world, satisfy essential needs and experience joy and wonder through aroma?


Discover the TEALEAVES x Microsoft project on LanguageOfAroma.com


A world-renowned expert on the psychological science of smell, Dr. Rachel Herz is a neuroscientist, TEDx speaker and published author of both books and numerous research publications. She is also a valued consultant to international corporations, an entrepreneur, and teaches at Brown University and Boston College. Dr. Herz contributed to our Language of Aroma campaign, which brings an appreciation and understanding for the detail of Aroma and its impact on the human condition.


Our culture teaches us what is good and bad, how to behave, and what to believe in.  This is just as true for customs and politics as it is for aromas and food.  Indeed culture is a very powerful force for dictating what we think tastes and smells disgusting or delicious.  Take cheese.

Most people of Asian descent consider cheese, and especially its aroma, to be disgusting and literally the equivalent of cow excrement, which considering that it is the rotted consequence of an ungulate body fluid, is technically correct.  By contrast, Westerners generally view, nattō, a stringy (the strings can stretch up to four feet) sticky, slimy, chunky, fermented soy bean dish that the Japanese love and regularly eat for breakfast, to be hideous.  In addition to its alien and complex texture, nattō suffers from an odor problem, at least for North Americans.  To me, nattō smells like the marriage of ammonia and a tire-fire.   Although this might not be the worst smell combination ever, it has zero connotation to food for me, and there is not a Westerner I know who at first attempt can get nattō  into their mouth. Are cheese and nattō the highest bar for the cultural aroma-food conflict to cross?  No. I think durian is the winner.

Durian is a native fruit of Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia and revered by southeast Asians as the “king of fruits”.  However, it is notorious for its odor.  For those who live in its natural habitat the fruit’s aroma inspires deep appreciation, but non-natives rarely share this opinion.  The food and travel writer Richard Sterling, lyrically described the scent of durian as: “pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock.” Other comparisons have been made with sewage, vomit and death.  Because tourists have such difficulty with the fruit’s fragrance, carrying raw durian is forbidden in most hotels, subways, buses and airports.  So if on your next trip to Jarkarta you’re inspired and buy some durian, make sure to eat it all while you’re at the market because you’re not going to be allowed back into the Hilton with it.

For the same cultural relativism when it comes to odors, a universal stink bomb has yet to be developed, despite the best military efforts.  The US military has been experimenting for years with various scents, including “US Army Latrine Odor”, as a safer alternate to tear gas that could be used in riot situations, but to date the mission has failed.  None of the odors that have yet been tested are able to cross-culturally get people running.  This is because of the meaning of odors across different cultures.  If you live in an area where underground sewer systems don’t exist, ‘latrine odor’ would be as common to you as the smell of fryer grease from a fast food restaurant is to many of us, and though it may not be your favorite scent you are fully accustomed to it and accept it as part of life—and its meaning is benign.  What’s more, if you live with an odor all the time, no matter what it is—your daily perfume, fryer grease, or sewage– it will smell a lot less intense to you than someone who only rarely encounters the scent.

We physiologically and psychologically adapt to the things that we smell all the time.  This is why you don’t think that your house has an “odor” though someone else might, and why you can’t smell the perfume that you wear every day.  When it comes to scent, the less intense something smells the less noticeable or bothersome it is.  This is another reason why Indonesians who are around durian on a daily basis can’t understand what all the fuss is about when Westerner’s come to visit.


Adapted from:  That’s Disgusting by Rachel Herz











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