Behind the unassuming exterior of a Strathcona Junction, Edmonton commercial kitchen, baker Winnie Hu is carefully stacking crepes. It’s with great precision — the kind that one would expect from a life-long hobby baker turned professional — that Hu assembles a tower of buttery, ultra-thin cakes held together by pastry cream.
But between each layer lurks another ingredient that strikes the fancy of some of Hu’s customers and the flight response of others: pure durian flesh.
Loved by some, tolerated by others, and feared by many, durian is arguably the world’s smelliest fruit. In parts of Southeast Asia to which durian is native, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand, it’s even banned from entering businesses and public spaces because of its pungent odour.
Some liken the smell of durian fruit to raw sewage or rotting flesh. Yet its rich, intoxicating taste is what has captivated the customers of Alberta bakeries and creameries who incorporate the fruit into their sweet creations.
At Thousand and One Cakes, Hu and her team incorporate the fruit into their succulent mille crepes, the dessert for which the Edmonton bakery is known. Thousand and One Cakes is a business born of the COVID-19 pandemic. On a normal year, Hu travels to her home country of China, as well as nearby countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, to relish in the foods she craves here in Canada but struggles to find, like durian.
In several cultures, the fruit is eaten raw or cooked. Sometimes, it’s even used as an anti-fever treatment or aphrodisiac. But for sweet tooths like Hu, it’s most delicious when used to flavour candies and desserts. Bummed by travel bans and the boredom of lockdown, Hu channelled her energy into infusing her mille crepes with tastes of home, including that of the strange fruit that captivated her at first nibble.
“The first time I came across durian, I thought the fruit looked so weird,” recalls Hu, who describes the taste as fermented vanilla. “But I liked it from the first bite, and the smell doesn’t bother me, because I like how it smells, too.”
Hu knows not all her patrons feel the same way. That’s why Thousand and One Cakes sets aside dedicated durian days when they unleash the fruit into the kitchen, only making durian mille crepes to avoid imparting an unbecoming stench on the space. Hu even houses her durian mille crepes in their own special fridge.
In Cochrane, family-owned creamery, MacKay’s, has a similar process for handling the processed pulp of the ultra-stinky fruit. MacKay’s produces a durian ice cream from Malaysian puréed durian fruit, which its staff mixes with the creamery’s signature ice cream base at its Cochrane manufacturing plant. It’s a process best left until the end of the day, says MacKay’s owner, Meghan Tayfel, once the other flavours have been blended, frozen, and packaged away at a safe distance. Handle with care is the name of the game when MacKay’s ice cream makers whip up the creamery’s durian ice cream that, against all odds, produces a smooth, creamy dessert of which their customers can’t get enough.
Tayfel’s family has served up chilled treats to Albertans for 73 years. Vanilla, chocolate and strawberry are all on the menu, but one of their best-selling take-home flavours is durian. That all began with Tayfel’s aunt, a hot-footed traveller and the store’s second-generation owner who heard the praises sung of a fruit named durian during her travels to Asia. She learned that, despite its unbecoming stink, the fruit could be transformed into delicious desserts, particularly ice cream, and returned to Cochrane to put durian ice cream on the local culinary map.
“When she came back from her travels, she started experimenting, and managed to come up with this really great ice cream,” says Tayfel. “And truly, [durian] is a really nice fruit to work with, because it [creates] an amazingly creamy product.”
COVID-19 supply chain challenges put a halt to MacKay’s durian ice cream production over the last few years. Tayfel says that getting her hands on the durian that she and her staff like to work with has been a challenge. After nearly two years of going without, MacKay’s customers were finally able to purchase one-litre take-home containers of the creamery’s durian ice cream in early 2022, when Tayfel tracked down durian from a supplier in Vietnam.
Within one weekend, all of MacKay’s durian ice cream had sold out — a testament to the mesmerizing power of the fruit’s flavour.
“The customers who like durian love it,” says Tayfel. “They tell us repeatedly that it’s the best durian ice cream they’ve had, that it’s super creamy, or that it reminds them of home.”
Providing tastes of home to the Asian and Southeast Asian community in Edmonton is what Hu loves to do best. During the mid-autumn festival — a traditional festival when residents of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and Vietnam, enjoy mooncake desserts as part of the celebrations — Hu produces Musang King Durian Mooncrepes.
The mooncrepe, she says, is her creative take on the mooncake. Instead of filling a crust with lotus or red bean paste, Hu envelops her mille crepes and pure durian flesh in a soft mochi coating. With each durian dessert she produces, Hu says she’s bringing home a little bit closer to the customers she serves.
“It’s bringing back their childhood memories, right? And they’re just super happy and grateful to enjoy the flavour of their hometown.”
Mackay’s Ice Cream, mackaysicecream.com
220 1 Street W, Cochrane 403-932-2455
Seven days, 10am – 6pm
Thousand & One Cakes, 1001cakes.com
6792 99 Street NW, Edmonton 587-988-3222
Open Saturdays, 2–5 pm