What apples are to America, what mangoes are to India, Durian must be to Malaysia. Durian, or Durio zibethenus, is the most bizarre fruit in a land that has no shortage of bizarre fruit. It is often called the king of the fruits because when it is in season, other fruits don’t sell. The durian tree itself is an enormous tree that grows naturally in the rainforest. There are domesticated varieties and cultivars in the market, especially in West Malaysia, but here in Sarawak a lot of the durians are semi-wild. That is one of the many fascinating things about the durian. The size, shape, color, texture, smell and flavor is so highly variable, you never know for sure what you’re going to get when you buy one, and you never eat the same durian twice. In Sarawak there are also a few other varities of wild edible durians, including these that I came across in Mukah a few years back.
The first things that stick out at you about the durian are the thorns. That is as it should be, since the word Durian comes from the Malay word duri meaning thorn, so literally the thorny fruit. The thorns can be quite sharp and stiff and are fully capable of drawing blood, keeping the seeds safe inside until the time is right. When the fruit is fully ripe, the durian’s thick rind will split along its seams, opening up to reveal the seeds, which are embedded in a thick layer of sweet, creamy flesh. The second thing that you will notice about the durian is the smell. Now that the plant is ready for its seeds to be dispersed, it begins to exude an odor so pungent, so rich, so complex that it can be smelled from long off and no one knows what to make of it or how to describe it. To the durian lover, it is intoxicating; to others, it is repellent. Even to those fond of the fruit, like your author, it must be acknowledged that the smell is strange. Walking through the Satok market, I have remarked to my wife, “Is that the bau longkang or is durian back in season?”
Malaysians love their durian, and it is an iconic object for the country, such that any movie set in Malaysia will incorporate durian somehow. See Jackie Chan’s SuperCop (police story 2 or 3, I don’t remember) where, flying through KL, Jackie swings from a helicopter ladder and lands on his butt in an open boxcar of a train carrying durians. At the same time, Malaysians are sensitive to the reactions of outsiders to the fruit, thus you will find most hotels and even taxi cabs with “No Durian Allowed” signs prominently displayed. I think that’s a shame because you have to have an open mind to appreciate durian, and all those signs predispose people to think it’s something disgusting.
To give the durian the chance it deserves, you have to approach it on its own. Don’t think that it will be similar to some other fruit you may have had; don’t even think of it as a fruit. I hesitate to describe it, out of reverence, but maybe it’s a bit like an avocado, since it is creamy and fatty, but also sweet, sharp, spicy… Somebody once said it’s like eating vanilla custard out of a toilet. He was on to something. The best durians also have a quality often described as gassy, or “heating”; it’s a certain something that fills up your whole mouth and gets your heart beating too. I’m convinced durian, at least the good gassy kind, speeds up your heart rate. It is undoubtedly this quality that gives durian its widespread reputation as an aphrodisiac. I hesitate, out of modesty, to confirm or deny these reports.
Let’s say you’re intrigued and want to buy some for yourself. During durian season, they’re not hard to find. You can follow your nose if you’re in a “wet market”, the local term for a fruit, vegetable and fish market. Otherwise, just drive around. Durian hawkers will often set up shop along the major thoroughfares, doing business out of the back of their van. The hawkers will sort their common durians into groups based on size, often with a reserve table in back with top-shelf fruit that must be individually haggled over. You can simply pull over, hop off your motorscooter and buy some.
The buying is to me the trickiest and most frustrating part of the experience. First of all, durians are not cheap. At the beginning and tail end of the season, they can cost an arm and a leg, and even when they are in season, I must be prepared to spend 10-20 ringgit per purchase to satisfy everyone’s appetite back at home. So the stakes are high. Like many things in Malaysia, the price can and should be haggled over. Haggling is something I dislike to begin with, and have a natural disadvantage at, being a foreigner, and here, haggling is bloodsport. There is no quarter given and they will contest every ringgit shaved off the price. Meanwhile, these hawkers are slippery customers themselves. They only have a few months to cash in, and their inventory is rotting right in front of their eyes, so they have to move them with speed. It was unsurprising on a certain level when I learned most durian hawkers are fishmongers in the offseason. Both trades involve passing off rapidly deteriorating goods of debatable quality on unsuspecting buyers.
Because that’s the next problem: how do you tell a good durian? Everyone has their own trick, secret or technique for assessing the quality of a durian. So people will smell them, check them for worm entry holes, shake them, squeeze two thorns together to test the thickness of the rind, asses the shape, examine the bottom end for concavity or convexity, tap the rind for a good hollow sound, heft them to judge the relative ratio of seed to flesh, check the stem to see how recently the durian fell from the tree, but the truth is nobody knows for sure until you open them up. Even then it’s not a sure thing. But once you’re satisfied with your picks, you fix a price, and the hawker will open them up for you. Once the hawker cracks opens it for you to peak inside, if there is no visible defect, it’s considered sold. If it is unripe or rotten or infested with bugs, you can pick a new one.
This stage presents risk to the hawker, because a durian that has been cracked open is much harder to sell. Normally I am on the side of the purchaser and have little sympathy for the seller to whom I lose a few hundred every season, but there are two sides to any transaction. I saw an old man approach a hawker. There were 3 for a 10, 4 for 10 and 5 for 10 piles. He wanted the 4 for 10 durians at a 5 for 10 price. The hawker wouldn’t agree. So he picked out 4 for 10. The hawker opened all four and they were all good. Then the man asked again for 5! When the hawker again refused, he only would buy 2 for 5 and left the hawker with 2 opened, unsold durians. Booo. Bad form, bad form. Even the hawker has to make a buck. Thus, if you’re visiting and a ringgit or two won’t break your budget, don’t haggle too much and just tell them you want the good stuff. They’ll gladly pick you out a good one for a generous buyer. You’ll be happy, they’ll be happy.
Now what? You’ve brought the fruit home, but it looks like a dangerous weapon. The safest technique is to get a old dish towel and use that to hold the fruit against the ground, then pry it open with a knife. The durian has natural seams where it will split with out too much forcing. Just watch out for the spikes. When you split it open, you’ll see the prize, which conceals a large brown inedible nut. Don’t try to keep clean; durians can’t be enjoyed without slurping, finger-licking and generally getting all messy. Just ask my kids.
The flesh is very satisfying, filling even, and nutritious. It doesn’t keep though, and the durian will continue to spoil as it sits out (some might say it’s spoiled to begin with!). Thus, in the height of the season, the market becomes glutted, prices drop and fruit begins to go to waste. Well, if the durian is too far gone to eat, or if it was partially infested with grubs, there’s still hope. The flesh can be stripped off the seed, left to stand overnight in a strainer to remove the excess water, and then packed into a pot or jar with a bit of salt on top. In a short time, the durian will ferment, becoming sour and tangy on top of all the other flavors I mentioned. Now you have tempoyak, which is serious Malay soul food. This is the stuff they don’t serve the guests. You take that tempoyak, if you’re a Perakian anyway, and mix that with red chilis and belacan pulverized in a mortar, and serve that as a condiment to the meal. Sambal tempoyak is an acquired taste to be sure, but, at least in our family, is more indispensable than durian itself. With our supplies running low, my mother-in-law successfully smuggled into the United States about 2 litres of tempoyak in a plastic drum hermetically sealed with about 10 plastic bags and a mile of packing tape. Luckily this was pre-9/11 or I’m sure they would have got her for culinary terrorism.
[Update: The New York Times has a front page article on Durian, just a month after my own. Coincidence? You decide. The article reports that a mad scientist in Thailand has developed a nearly odorless durian. Malaysians the nation over roll their eyes, I'm sure. What's next, nasi lemak without santan? Thai durians already fail to impress - "they all taste the same" is a common complaint. Part of the thrill of durians it the surprise: you never know what you're going to get.]