Durian, the sensational "king of the fruits"

Penang durian © Adrian Cheah

“You should wash your hands using the water poured over the inner side of durian skin. It will remove the pungent durian smell from your hands," urged Mr. Teh, my neighbour who accompanied me on a durian feast at Balik Pulau. We had a satisfying breakfast like no other amidst the natural surrounding of a durian orchard.

Penang durian © Adrian Cheah

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

Come durian season, for as far as I can remember, my father however, deploying a stick-stump approximately eight inches long with a slightly sharp end to do the same job.

I on the other hand, would now prefer the much safer and easier method – to ask the durian seller to open part of the fruit for me. This way, I am also certain of the quality I am paying for. In the past there were times when the inner skin merged and did not give way at the trust of the knife – the tussle sometime 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 size fruits covered with sharp thorns.

“Durian” come from the word “duri” 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 believe is that the older the tree, the better the fruit. Durian from an older tree 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. The mature durian tree needs at least three to four weeks of dry weather to produce flowers to fill its branches. One month late, the flower will be in full bloom. Three months after that, the durian fruit will start to ripen and drop.

The “champion” durians which we savoured that morning were from trees that were more than 40 years old amounting to about 65 per cent to the trees at the orchard.

According to Mr Nah, initial yield may be 10 to 40 fruits for the first year of “flowering” to about 100 fruits for the sixth year. Yield of up to 200 fruits is common after the 10th year of fruiting. Each durian season, this 30 acres orchard (which combines two farms) in Balik Pulau can produce as many at 15,000 durians.

Durian generally bear one crop a year but may “flower” twice a year if influenced by the right conditions. Normally, durian fruits are allowed to drop when they are ripe.

However, the fruits may also be harvested from the tree, as is a common practise in Thailand. By harvesting the shelf life could be extended from nine to 11 days compared to three or four days when allowed to drop from the tree.

Penang durian © Adrian Cheah

Durians are like grapes and wine, or like cheese. They are a food for gourmets, for connoisseurs. For genuine durian lovers, differentiating taste in accordance to variety can be a true science.

To judge the quality of the durian, there are three important criteria to remember. The first is the appearance of the durian. The colour must be even ranging from pale white to golden yellow, and to orange. Second is the aroma. It must have a strong or a light smell. Thirdly, the texture – it should be creamy wet or creamy dry, sweet or bitter sweet. The flesh must be smooth and fully cover the whole seed.

Different people crave different varieties. The sweeter type of durians are yellowish and creamy in texture. This include high-sounding names like Hor Loh, Lipan, Green Skin, D2, D15, D95 and Kun Poh. The optional bitter sweet type are usually pale in colour reminding me of a blue-and-black pinch would 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 popular varieties of "branded" durians and more that 50 other types waiting to be given a name.

Penang durian © Adrian Cheah

Our buffet spread that morning included some of the above. My preference were the yellowish ones called D604 and D14. They had thick flesh with rich sweet butter-like texture. Eating them even as they fell off the trees was the best guarantee of their freshness. It was indeed the best way to get one’s fill.

The fruits we ate that morning were of average size. They were not as big as that of the Thai variety which I usually avoid. The Thai varieties are packed with bulging fruits and the taste is less creamy, more fibre and rather bland. More is not better here for when it come to durians, quality is king.

I can also remember after a hefty durian feast, my mother would insist that my brothers, sisters, and I fill the empty shell with water, add a pinch of salt and drink it. She would explain that by doing so, the shell which contains "anti-heat" properties that would help cool down body heat. It is believed that durian makes the body feel 'warmer'.

We were also warned not to consume alcohol together with durian or having it before or after eating durian. This is because, durian is rich in protein and when mixed with alcohol, becomes yeast. One might feel uncomfortable if one were to consume both durian and alcohol together. Of course, my mother said that if we did so, we would just die. She would add on giving examples of dead uncles.

In the Malay Archipelago, about 150 years ago, 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 exploring Malaysia and Indonesia in the days before the steamboat. He must have discovered that this fruit with the powerful smell had even a more awesome taste.

Penang durian © Adrian Cheah

That morning, we walked away from our buffet breakfast with a smile on our faces, feeling very satisfied and being able to share Wallace’s experience.

We each paid Mr Nah RM15 and vowed to return next week to relish the sensation again before this durian season draws to an end.

If you are not, and have not sampled durians before, I highly recommend that you do. You will either love it or hate it. No two ways about it. Whatever the consensus, one must admit there is nothing quite like the durian – "king of the fruit".


6 September 2017: The above story was written many years ago. Yesterday, a friend of mine from Canada and I decided to enjoy a durian treat although we knew clearly the prices would be steep. How steep you might ask? Well, we had a D24 and an Ang Hah for RM 110 each bringing up the total to RM 220 for just two medium-size fruits. Ridiculously expensive and yet we indulged our cravings. What has happened to the prices of Penang durians through the years? Is it because of poor harvest? Is it because more Penang durians are now being exported to China? It is because of smart branding exercises? Or could it be that tourist in Penang are willing to fork out more to get their hands on the king of fruit? All I can say from reading the above story is that the buffet durian I enjoyed for only RM 15 is but in a distant pass. Those were back in the good old days.

Photographed and written by Adrian Cheah
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Updated: 6 September 2017