It can be all too easy to stick to your culinary comfort zone in Shanghai, be it KFC or gōngbǎo jīdīng. As a challenge to break these habits and avoid the rut, every few weeks Shanghaiist will explore one of the more intriguing options out of China’s endless array of curious cookery. Although bizarre to most Western palates, these oft-avoided edibles usually boast unique medicinal properties, nutritional benefits, and intriguing culinary histories. We’ll explore for you where they came from and where you can sample these rare eats for yourselves.
Summertime means durian, the infamous tropical fruit that looks like it’s part melon part medieval melee weapon, and whose stench is so notorious that some South East Asian hotels display signs reading “no firearms, no explosives, no durians.” But to be honest, it’s unfairly maligned, with Western rags focusing on how many putrid things they can analogize it to – sewage, garbage juice, roadkill sheep uterus (okay, guilty) – rather than the wonderful custard-y flavor that makes it all worth it. It’s become like Mystery Science Theater 3000 for food, with stinky tofu and century eggs also making regular appearances. I’ve been eating durian for 20 years, never have I picked up any notes of “sewage.”
As we’re so far from durian territory, Shanghai’s specimens unfortunately don’t give you a sense of how wonderful the fruit truly is. Fortunately, you can find a diverse array of durian dishes, the most famous being “durian pizza” at the now defunct Blue and Brown cafe. Our go-to is Tang Pin, a durian depot by Malaysian Brian Tan of hoF fame, that serves everything from durian moon cakes to durian ice cream.
These desserts demonstrate how versatile durian is and are good primer courses for those who aren’t quite ready for the unadulterated “King of Fruit.”
“Milk Custard Dandan Durian Roll”
The fancily-named “Milk Custard Dandan Durian Roll” is essentially a spongy roll cake filled with durian-whacked milk cream. The durian adds a nice almond-y dimension to the otherwise one-tract butteriness of the frosting. 28RMB small portion, 78RMB medium portion, 148RMB large.
Labelled “Durian Layers Pancake” on the menu, this pungent pastry consists of a stack of crepes pasted together with durian glop. It’s probably our least favorite. And not because of the smell, which is actually quite mild since Tang Ping’s durian comes pre-frozen from Thailand rather than fresh from Malaysia/Indonesia. It’s more the cloying sweetness, which clashes with the crepes, and festers in your mouth well after you finish eating it. 36RMB.
Durian ice cream
Durian seems to taste best either by itself or couched in some type of cream, and ice cream is no exception. The durian’s gingko-y funk melds well with the brawny vanilla, making it taste like more custardy Haagen Dazs. The ice cream giant should definitely consider launching a “Durian de Leche” flavor in the near future. 79RMB.
Durian with sweet bean curd
This durian delight entails a dollop of durian sludge in a moat of sweet bean curd (doufu fa), the same stuff you see sold in plastic cups by Chinese cruller vendors. It’s underwhelming. The cloyingly sweet durian and the cloyingly sweet tofu pudding repel each other like magnets with congruent flavor poles. 36RMB.
Durian milk pudding with mango and banana
This is basically a fruit salad with durian, mango, banana, and tapioca balls, in milk pudding. While cool and refreshing, this dish doesn’t integrate the durian well. It’s as if they were trying to disguise it with other fruit like a first-year college student drowning hard liquor with copious Pepsi-Cola. They could’ve scaled back the chasers. But all in all, not bad. 38RMB.
Durian cheese cake
Yeah, as a native New Yorker, I couldn’t pass this up. I mean, c’mon, durian. cheese. cake. Unfortunately, it didn’t do it for us. It just tasted crumbly and funky, like NY cheese cake that needed a bath. 35RMB for a slice, 288RMB for a whole cake.
“Durian Flat Noodle”
The term “noodle” is a bit misleading. This is more like a jellified empanada stuffed with durian and zig-zagged with durian sauce. It’s also our favorite dessert in all of duriandom Sweet, gelatinous, creamy, it’s a must. 36RMB.
Some durian delicacies clicked for us better than others, but judging by the throngs of Shanghai customers, they’re clearly a hit. And if durian’s going to make a splash with Western audiences, this is the format it’s probably going to have to be in (we can see that durian dessert truck now). Hopefully then, Western customers will realize that durian’s nothing to make a stink about (sorry).
Tang Pin – Shop 7, Novel Place, 133 Tianyaoqiao Lu, near Xingeng lu (天钥桥路133号7号铺, 近辛耕路). Tel: (0)21-3368-6879. Hours: 4-10pm Tues-Sun. Closest metro stop: Xujiahui, line 1.
Last time on Off the Beaten Palate: Duck tongue, head, feet and other offal bits
See a complete list of our Off the Beaten Palate series here.
Benjamin Cost is Shanghaiist’s Food Editor. Email tips, recommendations, and news updates on Shanghai’s dining scene to [email protected].