Durian, the sensational "King of the Fruits"

Penang durian © Adrian Cheah

“You should wash your hands using water poured over the inside of a durian skin. It will remove the strong odour from your fingers," urged Mr. Teh, my neighbour who accompanied me on a durian feast at one of the many durian orchards in Balik Pulau. That morning, we had a satisfying breakfast like no other, amidst the natural surroundings of the orchard, shaded by towering durian trees.

Penang durian © Adrian Cheah

Mr Nah Gin Guan, the son of the durian orchard's tenant, was skillful in opening the durians. With a sharp cleaver, every single fruit was pried open at the tail end where the indicative slicing lines meet.

Come durian season, for as far as I can remember, my late father, however, deployed a wooden stump approximately eight inches long with a slightly tapered end to do the same job.

I, on the other hand, would now prefer the much safer and easier method – to seek the assistance of the durian seller to open part of the fruit for me. This way, I am certain of the quality I am paying for as well. In the past there were times when the inner skin of the fruit merged and would not give way to the thrust of the knife, resulting in a tussle that sometimes drew blood.

Penang durian © Adrian Cheah

The durian tree (Bombaceae, Durio zibethius L.Murr) is native to moist equatorial forests in Southeast Asia. It can grow to 100 feet tall and produces heavy, thick-skinned, brownish-green, soccer-ball sized fruits covered with sharp thorns.

“Durian” comes from the word “duri” which translates from Bahasa Malaysia as "thorn". Therefore durian, by name, is the thorny fruit. Which indeed, it is. Each individual fruit is divided into five compartments, each containing a brown seed covered by a sac of thick, creamy pulp with an aroma that is legendary.

A popular belief is that the older the tree, the better the fruit. Older durian trees will bear fruits having a wrinkled texture with smooth, thick, creamy flesh that taste sweeter and have a stronger "fragrance" and flavour.

Penang durian © Adrian Cheah

Usually, seed trees will start bearing fruit after about five to six years. Sometimes, four to five-year-old trees can start to flower as well. The mature durian tree needs at least three to four weeks of dry weather to produce flowers. One month later, the flowers will be in full bloom. Three months after that, the durian fruits will start to ripen and drop.

The “champion” durians which we savoured that morning were from trees that were more than 40 years of age, amounting to about 65 percent to the trees at the orchard.

According to Mr Nah, the initial yield may be between 10 to 40 fruits for the first few years of “flowering” to about 100 fruits from the sixth year onwards. Yields of up to 200 fruits are common after the 10th year of fruiting. During each durian season, Mr Nah's 30-acre orchard (which combines two farms) can harvest approximately 15,000 fruits.

durian © Adrian Cheah

Durian season generally bears one crop a year but may “flower” twice a year if influenced by the right conditions. Normally, durians are allowed to drop when they ripen. However, the fruits may be harvested from the tree, as is a common practice in Thailand as well. By harvesting, the shelf life will be extended from nine to 11 days, as compared to three or four days when allowed to drop from the tree.

Penang durian © Adrian Cheah

Good durians are like priced wines or gourmet cheeses. They are food for connoisseurs. For genuine durian lovers, differentiating taste in accordance to variety seems like true science.

To judge the quality of the durian, there are three important criteria to consider. First is the appearance of the flesh. The colour must be even, ranging from off-white to bright egg yellow, to strong yellowish-orange. The second is its aroma. The fruit must have a strong intense bouquet, locally known as "hong". "Hong" marks the satisfactory oomph, the extra kick of the fruit in all aspects as well. I cannot find an English word that best describes "hong". Thirdly, the texture and taste should be creamy and wet or creamy and dry, sweet or bittersweet, some even with an alcoholic kick. The smooth pulp should fully cover the entire seed.

durian © Adrian Cheah

durian © Adrian Cheah

Different people crave different varieties. The sweeter types of durian are yellowish and creamy in texture. These include high-sounding names like Hor Loh, Lipan, Green Skin, D2, D15, D95 and Kun Poh. The optional bitter-sweet variety is usually pale in colour, reminding me of a blue-and-black pinch wound that is easing off. According to Mr Nah, the orange coloured variety (e.g., "Ang Heh" literally means red prawn) are usually not as sweet as the yellowish type. His orchard has as many as 20 varieties of "branded" durians and more than 50 other types waiting to be given names.

Penang durian © Adrian Cheah

In the days of olde, there was only one species of fruit, the old tree/kampung variety. Now there is a bit of hair-splitting (more of a selling gambit!) as the kampung/old tree variety would often be tagged with a few fancier labels to justify the higher price.

That morning, the durian buffet included some of the above varieties. My preference was the yellowish fruits called D604 and D14. They had thick flesh with rich, sweet butter-like flavours. Enjoying the durians at the orchard from freshly harvested fruits indeed guarantees their quality. It was a chance to get one’s fill.

The selected fruits that morning were of average sizes. They were not as humongous as the Thai variety. The Thai durians are packed with bulging pulp that is less creamy and rather bland in taste. Here, more flesh definitely does not assure better quality.

I always remember that after a hefty durian feast, my mother would recommend that my brothers, sisters and I fill empty durian shells with water and add a pinch of salt before drinking the content. The shell supposedly contains properties that would help cool the body.

We were also cautioned not to consume alcohol along with durians, before and even after eating durians. This is because one might experience discomfort otherwise. Of course, my mother said in a matter-of-fact tone that we would die if we did not heed her warning. She would further elaborate, citing gruesome examples of dead uncles.

Famed Victorian naturalist and evolutionary theorist Alfred Russle Wallace wrote, "To eat durian is a new sensation worth a voyage to the East to experience". He spent eight years (1854 to 1862) exploring the Malay Archipelago including Malaysia, Singapore, the islands of Indonesia, then known as the Dutch East Indies and the island of New Guinea. He must have discovered that beyond the pungent aroma of the fruit lay something truly divine within.

Penang durian © Adrian Cheah

We walked away from the durian buffet with wide smiles on our faces, feeling extremely satisfied and being able to share Wallace’s experience. We each paid Mr Nah RM15 and vowed to return the following week to relish the sensation again before this durian season drew to an end.

If you have not sampled durians before, I highly encourage you to do so. You will either love it or hate it and there are no two ways about it. Whatever the consensus is, one must admit there is nothing quite like the durian, "King of the Fruits".

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The above story was written a long time back, almost 20 years ago.

In September 2017, a good friend from Canada and I decided to enjoy a durian treat although we were aware that prices would be steep. How steep, you might ask? Well, we had a D24 and an Ang Heh for RM 110 each bringing up the total to RM 220 for just two medium-sized fruits. Although ridiculously expensive, we indulged in our cravings.

What has happened to the prices of Penang durians through the years? Is it because of the poor harvest? Is it because more Penang durians are now being exported to China? Is it because of smart branding exercises? Or could it be that tourists in Penang are willing to fork out more to get their hands on the King of Fruits? All I can say from reading the above story is that the buffet durian I enjoyed for only RM15 is from a distant past. Those were back in the good olde days.

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Photographed and written by Adrian Cheah
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Updated: 18 May 2021