Third Coffee

Coffee beans spread upon a tray

Jasmine blooms on the ledge do rest

I’ve been dreaming till break of day

My sweetheart sleeping upon my chest

“Buah kopi di atas loyang

Kembang melati letak di bangku

Saya bermimpi hampirkan siang

Jantung hati tidur di pangku”

Coffee Flower Island South-east Asia produces a lot of coffee.  The word Java, now perhaps most famous as a computer language, came to English as a word for coffee because so much of it was grown on the island of Java, the home island of Indonesia.  This was before Juan Valdez came on the scene. Coffee lovers are probably aware of Sumatra Mandheling, the fine beans from the highlands of Sumatra island.  And if you’re a real coffee snob, you may even have tried the coffee prepared from beans that have passed through the digestive tract of an Indonesian civet cat: kopi luak.

And yet, local people are not drinking any of that.  All the really good stuff gets exported to the West and simply cannot be found in the marketplace even at export prices.  What we get instead are bins of greasy beans of uncertain provenance roasted in a traditional process: margarine and sugar are mixed in with the beans as they are stirred over a fire.  In the end you get a very black bean with a milimeter or two of oily sugar glazing on it.  Virtually all coffee you drink in Malaysia will be prepared from this stuff, usually by pouring boiling water over a pot of grounds.  This yields French press coffee or cowboy coffee, depending on whether you find this method sophisticated or crude.

The bean itself is almost certainly not arabica, which comes from the first species to be brought under human cultivation, Coffea arabica.  Originating in the highlands of East Africa, it doesn’t grow all that well here in the hot humid tropics.  An epidemic of coffee rust, Himileia vastatrix, wiped out the bulk of Coffea arabica several decades ago in SE Asia, and what is still grown in the cool uplands of Java and Sumatra goes straight to export.

Unripe berriesThe second species to be commercialized was Robusta, C. conephora.   Robusta is more productive, easier to take care of, and less picky about climate, but is considered inferior by discerning coffee drinkers.  Thus, most robusta enters the global coffee-stream mostly as powdered or instant coffee, or as a cheap filler for blends of beans.  At the moment, discerning drinkers turn up their noses at robusta, but it may be we’ll all be drinking it in the future.  Arabica production in the Americas is threatened by the same disease that wiped out most arabica plantations in SE Asia originally.  Industrial growing conditions are likely at fault, according to University of Michigan Prof Vandermeer. If there is an arabica holocaust in the Americas, what will we drink?

It turns out Coffea is a big genus, and there are apparently many species that yield caffeinated beans that are more or less untested.  In Sarawak, down in the sweltering lowlands where I live, robusta is grown together with a third species of coffee, Coffea liberica.   Liberica is a larger tree than arabica or robusta, with cherries larger than arabica and more oblong than robusta.  It is much more resistant to rust and has been used in hybrid breeding programs for hardier arabica.  As arabica wanes, selection and improvement of liberica varieties may well yield the coffee of the future.  If you want to try tomorrow’s coffee today, you need to head down to Carpenter Street in Kuching.
october07 032
One of the few remaining streets of the historic Chinese district in Old Kuching, Carpenter Street begins at a large red arch opposite the old courthouse complex.  The narrow one-way lane winds through several blocks of shoplots, including a large number of jewelers, before terminating at a Chinese temple and former Chinese open-air theater.  The best coffee shop in Kuching is the second to last storefront before the temple:  Black Bean Coffee Shop.
Black Bean Coffee Shop
Gracious and low-key, the cafe has been doing business essentially unchanged since I got here ten years ago, before the first Starbucks arrived, before our local Starbucks competitor chain, Bing! Coffee, opened up.  To the best of my knowledge, it is the only place in town you can find locally grown coffee, which the proprietor sources from individual growers in the area and roasts himself.  Several times I’ve walked in to find big bags of green beans in various stages of processing at the rear of the small store, someone picking and tossing defective beans by hand.

Coffee beans upon the shelf
Coffee beans upon the shelf

The key is the roast.  The same beans that produce one flavor roasted in sugar and margarine become something very different after a skilled dry roast.  The espresso drinks at Black Bean are made from two parts liberica to one part robusta, scooped out from the big glass jars in front of you.  The coffee is delicious.  And exceedingly potent:  Robusta and Liberica beans contain roughly double the caffeine of arabica.  Adjust your dosage accordingly.

Before a ring better a necklace

A necklace graces the entire body

Better mustached than cleanshaven

With a mustache you can strain your coffee

“Daripada cincin eloklah rantai

Rantai dibuat penghias diri

Daripada licin elok bermisai

Misainya dapat menapis kopi”

Gracious and low key
Gracious and low key

Pantuns courtesy Malay Civilization
Translations mine.

New Facility for Ma’had Tahfiz

At the beginning of this year, my daughter Kak Andak started first grade at a new religious school. It’s a private school operated by the charitable foundation of the State Mosque, specializing in Quran memorization. For the last year and a half, it had been operating in the basement of the State Mosque itself.

A few months ago, it finally moved into a custom built facility in the corner of the large civic block that is home to the State Mosque, State Library and Arboretum. It’s gorgeous! Designed with Quran study in mind, it is built looking inward, with all the classroom wings opening onto interior courtyards, and a low wall around the perimeter blocking out distraction. There is even a dormitory so that the children can nap between the Quran memorization period in the morning and the academic work in the afternoon. It looks a bit lonely at the moment, but that is because there are only first and second graders there. Next year they will add third grade and so on until the school is full.

Datuk Haji Abdul Kadir Hassan

Datuk Haji Abdul Kadir Hassan

By Abu Muhammad of Bahrus Shofah


English Translation by Bin Gregory Productions


Datuk Haji Abdul Kadir bin Hassan, may Allah have mercy on him, was born in Kampung Patingan (or Kampung No. 6), Kuching, Sarawak, on the 6th of August, 1928 (28th Safar 1347). His formal education began at SRK (Public School) Merpati Japang (my own school) until Standard 4 (10th grade), after which he attended the Madrasah Melayu (Malay Religious School, Kuching). While studying at school, he deepened his religious knowledge with local ulama (religious scholars), among them Guru Sulong bin Hussin and Tuan Guru Haji Yusuf bin Abdul Ghani. Datuk Abdul Kadir then entered Madrasah al-‘Arabiah al-Islamiah, an Arabic language school founded by Datu Imam Tuan Guru Haji Abang Murshidi, before continuing his education at Madrasah al-Juneid, Singapore. Among his other teachers were Ustaz Sharkawi bin Shaykh Othman, Shaykh Syazali bin Shaykh Othman and Shaykh Zainuddin bin Shaykh Othman (they being the children of Shaykh Othman as-Sarawaki) and many more ulama who taught at Madrasah al-Islamiah and Madrasah al-Juneid.

After finishing at Madrasah al-Juneid, Datuk Abdul Kadir served as a religious teacher at the Singapore Police Academy. He was also active in da’wah (calling to Islam) in many mosques throughout Singapore, and was frequently invited to give the Friday sermon at Masjid Sultan. Realizing that he needed to contribute to the people of Sarawak who were more in need of his service, he left his career in Singapore to return to his homeland. In Sarawak, he continued his duties as a religious teacher and resumed his da’wah efforts. Alongside that, he constantly endeavored to take his religious studies to a higher level, and in the end, with the assistance of Tan Sri Abang Ikhwan Zaini, he was given a scholarship to continue his formal education at the Islamic College of Malaya. Among his teachers there were Tan Sri Muhammad Abdul Rauf, Tan Sri Jalil Hasan, Ustaz Zulkifli Muhammad, Dr. Zaki Badawi and Ustaz Nik Mohd. Mahyuddin. After completion of his studies at the Islamic College in 1959, his ambition was to pursue further studies at Al-Azhar University. This was blocked by the British colonial regime which at that time did not want students to be sent to an Egypt under the control of President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Fatwas of Mufti Datuk Haji Abdul Kadir Hassan, Volume 2
Fatwas of Mufti Datuk Haji Abdul Kadir Hassan

Still, nothing could lessen his determination and drive to increase his religious knowledge. With a strong primary education in Islam, and his mastery of the foundational knowledge necessary for acquiring deeper religious knowledge, he rigorously studied the texts written by our ulama while at the same time constantly holding discussions with fellow travelers and local ulama. He was also extremely careful in answering questions put forward regarding issues of religion, referring always to the major religious works such as Sabilal Muhtadin, I’anatut Talibin and Bughyatul Mustarshidin. His love of knowledge and the ulama was such that he would transcribe by hand books that were unavailable in the marketplace at that time.

On the 1st of May, 1967, Datuk Abdul Kadir was appointed Mufti of the State of Sarawak. His appointment did not prevent him from continuing his da’wah work. His study circles continued as before, while he continued teaching classes on the book Sabilal Muhtadin at a number of suraus (neighborhood mosques) around the region. While he was well known as an alim (one of the ulama) and a caller to Islam, he can also be considered as a pious servant (of the Lord). As part of his regular devotions, he would read 3 juz (30ths) of the Quran every day and complete the reading of the Quran every 10 days. Tahajjud and qiyamullail (the night vigil) were constant practices of his, together with Salat ad-Dhuha (the mid-morning prayer) which was his routine practice before heading to the office. In the month of Ramadhan, he held fast to the practice of 20 rakaat (cycles of prayer) in tarawih (special night prayers during Ramadhan), even though the trend was toward 8 rakaat as preferred by those in power in the government at the time. As firm as he was in his certitude, he always carried himself with great humility. Once, when he was invited to lead the tarawih prayers by supporters of the 8-rakaat prayer, he honored the invitation, but when the 8 rakaat where finished, he withdrew and requested someone else to lead the witr (three rakaat closing the tarawih prayer), completing his tarawih later. Such was the character of Datuk Abdul Kadir: he was the gentlest of men and did not like to force his ways on others. So soft was his manner of speaking that he would win the heart of anyone who interacted with him, even the smallest of children.

Datuk Abdul Kadir returned unto the mercy of his Lord on Friday, the 15th of January 1988. May Allah have mercy on him always. Al-Fatihah.

The Fatwa (Ruling) of Datuk Abdul Kadir Concerning Zikir Marhaban (recitation of devotional poetry about the Prophet, peace be upon him).

What is the Islamic position regarding zikir marhaban as it is practiced by the Islamic community today?

• In truth, this represents a form of praising and wishing blessings and peace on the Exalted Messenger, peace be upon him.
Standing at the moment when the birth of the Prophet is mentioned, together with singing the songs “Marhaban Jaddal Husaini”, “Ashraqul Badrul ‘Alaina” and others, out of respect for Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is in fact an excellent practice, and there is nothing in the Law that prohibits this, as long as one does not change the pronunciation of the words in such a way as to alter their meaning.
• Sayyid Zaini Dahlan, the Grand Mufti of the Shafi’i Madhab in Mecca (d. 1304H) was of the opinion that congregating to celebrate the birth of the Prophet, reciting accounts of his life, standing and praising the Prophet, peace be upon him, were praiseworthy actions. And it has been practiced in such a way by many of the ulama who are the leaders of the Ummah (muslim nation). (I’anatut Talibin, section III, page 363).
• Imam Taqiyuddin as-Subki, among the greatest scholars of the Shafi’i Madhab (d. 657H) was also of the opinion that standing upon hearing accounts of the Prophet’s birth was among the praiseworthy actions for honoring the Prophet.
In short, there is no doubt that holding Zikir Marhaban as practiced in our community is not remotely contradicted in the Law but rather it is counted amongst the best of deeds.


Originally published in Bahasa Melayu at Bahrus Shofa.

Any errors or shortcomings in the text above are on the part of the translator. Corrections warmly welcomed.

Good News for Mixed Kids

Malaysia never stops changing. Controversial areas like race, religion, native privilege (bumiputera status), and national language are constantly in a state of flux. Most recently, when I registered the birth of my latest child, I discovered that the birth certificate itself had changed (for the second time), and that now the race of the child was explicitly stated on the birth cert. Prior to this, the race of the mother and father were stated, but not that of the child. I didn’t really know what that meant, but I figured it implied some latitude in determining the child’s race at some future time, like when he got his national Identity Card, for example. Instead, now, the child’s race is designated on the birth cert, AND the child takes the race of the father. Well that’s clear enough. Except wait. What race am I?

They call me Orang Putih over here, and I’m white back home (let’s not get into that again), but Lo! There is no Putih option. I didn’t even ask about Jewish. I tried to put American, which would be great if it would stop people from telling my son he’s an Englishman, but the counter clerk said that wasn’t an option either. So, my son and I, we’re Europeans now. It’s been a long 150 years from the Motherland, but finally, in Malaysia, I return to my roots and throw European offspring.

That’s fine really, if that’s what it has to be. But does it? Jordan MacVay, who is expecting another child, got on the telephone and tried to get some straight answers out of JPN, the National Registration Department. And it appeared he did, until the exceptions, the workarounds, and the contradictions started cropping up, as they always, invariably do. Check out the comments section for more.

Along the way at Jordan’s, I took the chance to whine again about the extra-special immigration and registration laws here in the Land of the Hornbill. The most bizarre inconsistency being that in the rest of the country, children born of one bumiputra parent inherit bumiputra status, whereas in Sarawak, both parents must be bumiputra. Combined with the ruling above about inheriting race from the father, and you wind up with West Malaysians who are ethnically European but receive Bumiputra privileges, and Sarawakians who are ethnically Malay or Iban but do not receive Bumiputra privileges. The recent Marina Undau case in particular caused widespread murmuring in Sarawak, which our Chief Minister could probably not ignore, considering his own children of mixed descent.

Barely had I finished venting on the topic at Jordan’s, when I received a government circular in my Inbox. As of November 23rd 2009, all Sarawakians and Sabahans with one bumiputra parent are to be considered as bumiputera by all government agencies. Amazing. No newspaper headlines, no parliamentary act, no public debate – just a government memo and it’s done. Download it and read for yourself.


Pokok Kekabu Among the more dramatic trees in the settled landscapes of Malaysia is the Kekabu or Kapok Tree (Ceiba pentandra), a gargantuan tropical version of the common large-for-Michigan Cottonwood Tree (Populus deltoides) of my youth. A truly massive tree, it grows to easily 100 feet high, with thick strong lateral branches radiating out in whorls at nearly 90 degrees from the trunk. The most striking feature is at ground level: the muscular buttress roots that rise 8, 9, 10 feet out of the ground to join the main trunk, giving the tree the appearance of a rocket ready for take off. A tree of such stature cannot be planted just anywhere – the roots could easily buckle pavement or crack a foundation – but at the edge of a parade ground or athletic field it is a perfect choice. The specimen in the photos is growing at the side of Kuching’s historic Independence Field (Padang Merdeka) where it dwarfs even the Rain Trees (Samanea saman).
Pokok Kekabu
Beyond its impressive landscape qualities, the tree was for a long time an economically important plant. Like the cottonwood tree back home, it produces pods holding great quantities of seeds inside with a cottony fibre for wind dispersal. One summer the cottonwood trees in Detroit had a flag year and the grassy floodplain across from my house was dusted white like a half-inch of snow. Fleetingly beautiful, but useless. The kekabu Kekabu Tree by comparison can produce kilos of cotton every year. That cotton is thick, soft and waxy, and for a long time was bought and sold commercially for furniture cushions and pillows, before being replaced by foam products. Nowadays it is hard to find in West Malaysia, and quite expensive: RM18/kilo or more. Here in Sarawak though, it is still readily available and affordable. My wife was feeling domestic in the days leading up to the birth and decided to make pillows. I was able to pick up several packages of 2nd grade kekabu for RM7.50/kilo, or about a dollar a pound. “Tok ada jahat sikit“, said the old man: “it’s a bit wicked” meaning that it needed a bit of cleaning before it could be used. Sure enough, the cotton had some seeds and twigs inside, but sorting through it was exactly the kind of meditative finger-work my wife was looking for to prepare for the baby to come. She stuffed 8 pillows all in all (careful not to stitch them up completely – pantang you know) before AbangChu made his appearance, just the perfect thing for 40 days of bedrest.

Sarawak Kekabu, or silk-cotton.  Jahat sikit, but usable.
Sarawak Kekabu, or silk-cotton. Jahat sikit, but usable.

Hidden Mosques

Surau Al-Hidayah is the pale blue building in the center
Surau Al-Hidayah is the pale blue building in the center
The azan can be heard all around Kuching from the suraus in most every neighborhood. Sometimes it takes a bit of work to find where it is coming from. Taking a shortcut through a secluded neighborhood on my way home late from work, I would often hear the azan called loudly nearby, see old uncles walking down the street in kain palikat and songkok, but never saw the mosque. I decided to explore one day on foot, and discovered the surau tucked away in a block of homes, with only a signboard Roadside Signboardat the alley entrance. From the air, it is easy enough to pick out: it is the only building not orientated toward the street, but toward the direction of prayer. The Surau Al-Hidayah is surrounded on all sides by homes, with two paths leading in between the neighbors’ fences. Gates in neighbors’ fences allow them to slip in from their backyards for the prayers.

Often, land for suraus is gifted by old landowners to a waqaf, or Islamic trust, as part of their will. approaching the surauPerhaps that’s what happened here. The surau is obviously well-endowed and looked after. The front entrance is tiled, and well-tended bougainvilleas bloom in decorative pots along the open space behind the mihrab. Several airconditioning units hang from the outside wall. Unfortunately, many urban suraus are locked before and after prayers to prevent theft. The anjung or front porch Since I arrived about an hour after Asr prayers, I was unable to go inside. Like most neighborhood suraus, it is a community gathering place as well as a prayer hall, as shown by the large covered front porch equipped with tables and chairs for relaxing and socializing before and after the prayers. This surau even had a pair of ping-pong tables in the back for entertainment.

Surau Al-Hidayah Suraus exist somewhere between the public and private sphere, open to the random seeker looking to catch his salat but populated by a core group of regulars. They all have their own atmosphere that makes them so enjoyable to visit and discover. The favorable siting of this one makes it feel particularly warm and cozy. Finding it is the hard part.

Full Surau Al-Hidayah Photoset on Flickr

Neighboring homesAnother occulted mosque in town is the Masjid India, utterly hidden from view. Photosets of other masjids and suraus around Malaysia. Previous entries about local suraus and masjids at Bin Gregory Productions.

Looking back down the front entrance

Front door

Social space with ping-pong

the rear entry

The alley entrance

Neighbor's fence adjoining the front entrance

Datuk Hakim Keramat

masjid bahagian from the river

By Abu Muhammad

English Translation and Photography by Bin Gregory Productions

Datuk Hakim Keramat, or the Miraculous Judge, was the title given to a religous scholar of Sarawak well known for his miracles and mystic knowledge. His real name was Abang Haji Abdul Rahman bin Abang Haji Brahim. He was born in Kuching, Sarawak and returned unto the Mercy of the Lord on the 9th of Ramadan 1309 AH (1890 CE). He was buried in the cemetery on the grounds of the Kuching District Mosque.

River ViewDatuk Hakim Keramat began his formal religious studies under a preacher from the holy city of Makkah al-Mukarramah, one Shaykh Ahmad al-Makkawi (alternatively, al-Makki). According to some, Shaykh Makkawi passed away in Kuching and was buried in a village on the banks of the Sarawak River. Other versions claim he returned to Makkah and passed away there. In either case, Datuk Hakim Keramat continued his religious education by traveling to Makkah al-Mukarramah in the 1840’s. After years in Makkah, he returned to Sarawak after receiving news from a pilgrim performing his Hajj. It was Datuk Patinggi Ghafur, a Sarawak nobleman, who related that his homeland of Sarawak had fallen under the control of the heathen White Rajah. Thus sometime in the 1850s, fearing that the White colonizers may try to change the faith and beliefs of the Malays of Sarawak, Datuk Hakim Keramat returned to his native land on the Island of Borneo. His return was to spread devotion and to safeguard the faith and his people.

Faced with the rule of the White Rajah, Datuk Hakim Keramat took a diplomatic approach because he knew armed resistance would not yield any positive result for his people. He knew that declaring a jihad before the religiously established rules and conditions for it had been met would cause it to be unacceptable to God as an act of worship, thus only bringing disaster to their cause over the long term. Therefore, he instead focused his attention on preserving the foundations of Islamic faith and belief to prevent it from damage or destruction by the White Rajah. Thus, Datuk Hakim Keramat pursued a resistance strategy based on religious knowledge, strengthening and solidifying the faith and commitment of his people to Islam. Datuk Hakim Keramat tirelessly spread knowledge, calling people to the faith ceaselessly and selflessly. He built a musallah or surau in the village of Bandarsah as a center for Islamic outreach and as an Islamic courthouse.

In an effort to win the the support of Datuk Hakim Keramat, who was well-respected as a religous leader in the community, James Brooke appointed him as a Judge for the affairs of the Muslims in Sarawak. To care for the religious needs of his people and to safeguard the religion, Datuk Hakim Keramat took the position, although his spirit of anti-colonialism and resistance to the Brooke regime did not change. He taught his people their religion through the teachings of Sunni Islam, following the Shafii School of jurisprudence. He sent many of his students to further their religious studies in Makkah al-Mukarrramah. Among those sent by him were his own children, Datuk Hakim Haji Muhammad Azhari, Datuk Hakim Haji Muhammad Ash`ari, Datuk Imam Haji Suhaili, Shaykh Shibli, Datuk Hakim Haji Muasli, as well as his adopted son nursed by his own wife, the brilliant scholar Shaykh Uthman as-Sarawaki.

Datuk Hakim Keramat was famous for his piety. It is related that when he would teach a class of women, he would sit beneath a mosquito net so that he could not see them clearly. In those days, when they wished to leave the house, Malay women of Sarawak would always cover their aurat. Moreover, they would margok themselves, meaning that they would use a sarong to cover their head and face, such that only their eyes and a small portion of their face was visible. Unfortunately, this tradition of using the margok is no longer practiced today.

Datuk Hakim Keramat can be considered a leading scholar who preserved and strengthened Islam in Sarawak, and educated a generation of religious scholars in Sarawak. He was an innovator who started a new chapter in the building of a learned and intellectual culture among the greater Sarawak Malay society. Directly or indirectly, he prepared a strong foundation for Islamic knowledge and the propagation of Islam in Sarawak.

hill vistaAlthough he was appointed to a high position in the state, his passion in opposing the colonists could not be extinguished. His appointment was used to the best possible degree as a means to raise the position of Islam and the Malay people. He and the scholars he educated struggled mightily to preserve the sanctity of Islam from the meddling of the colonists. Under the leadership of these scholars, the Muslim peoples of Sarawak succeeded in minimizing the effect of colonial interference in religious affairs. When the colonists began to proselytize in Sarawak, it was the diplomatic intervention of these scholars that convinced the colonists to desist from missionary work amongst the Malays. Their efforts and their sacrifices will always be remembered by the Malays of Sarawak as long as there are people who value their own culture and respect the efforts of their religious scholars.

Maqam of Datuk Hakim KeramatIn truth, it was Datuk Hakim Keramat, known for his miracles and his spiritual knowledge, and his students among the religious scholars of Sarawak, who preserved and safeguarded the faith of Sunni Islam under Shafii jurisprudence that has been the faith of the Sarawak Malays, and who never abandoned their homeland during its subjugation to the heathen White Rajah. The blessed outcome of their sincerity and their efforts was that the White Rajahs were forced to respect the sanctity of Islam as the religion of the Malays of Sarawak. Perhaps this was his greatest miracle of all.

May God shower them all with His Good Pleasure and Mercy, and let us lift up to them a recitation of the Fatihah.

[Datuk Hakim Keramat: Original Malay Text]

[Annotated Slideshow of Kuching District Mosque and Grounds]


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.]