June and July typically herald the peak season of durians in Malaysia, but seasoned fruit hunters will tell you that this year isn’t like previous years. Not only has there been a notable lack of durians on the racks, but prices have also skyrocketed to ridiculous levels.
To shed some light on what’s going on, we spoke to two people: Erik Ong, the founder of the Durian King TTDI fruit store, and Lindsay Gasik – author of the upcoming book ‘The Durian Tourist’s Guide to Penang’ and blogger behind YearOfTheDurian.com – who has based herself in Southeast Asia and researched and studied about durians since falling for the fruit in 2009.
Durians are in short and staggered supply this year.
The long rainy season this year has reduced durian yield in two ways: first, by delaying the durian flowering process (which typically requires two weeks of drought) and second, by knocking off the flowers before they can be pollinated.
‘There is less durian overall, but the biggest thing we’ll experience is that all the durian won’t drop at one time, which keeps the prices a bit higher and make it feel like there’s a scarcity,’ says Lindsay. ‘The Johor/ Pahang season is delayed until mid-August or September, while Penang will finish by mid-August. So there won’t be the “glut” or oversupply that normally happens and drives the prices down.’
Be prepared to fork out two or three times more for durian.
‘We’re only expecting about 30 percent of the supply we had compared to last year, and even if there is supply, half of the fruits go to China and Singapore,’ says Erik. ‘As a result, our costs have doubled or tripled, and even the kampung durians that last year cost RM3 a fruit are now selling at RM9 or RM10.’
He does hope that when the durian season hits its peak during August, the price of durians like the Musang King will drop down to about RM60-RM70 per kilogramme compared to the early season rates of RM80- RM85.
Explore varieties beyond the Musang King.
Durian novices are usually drawn to the Musang King, which is known for its sweet flesh, dry texture and less intense aroma; but given its ridiculous prices, it’s best to explore other options that might taste just as good, or even better.
‘I’d recommend the Black Thorn, which is one of the top-selling fruits,’ says Erik, adding that it might be priced about RM50 per kilo in KL, depending on what the supply is like. ‘It has a bitter-sweet flavour with a wine aftertaste – it’s not for your average Joe, but those who have eaten durians for a while will fall in love with it at the first try. The other durian I’d suggest is the XO, which costs about RM30-35 a kilo. It has a more bitter, alcoholic taste to it.’
Another underrated variety that deserves attention is the Capri, which according to Lindsay can be found at Eng Hoe Durian farm, north of Batu Feringghi in Penang. Identified through its unusually large and wide-based spikes, the durian has a pale white flesh (hence, its lack of marketability) that carries a distinctive whisky-banana rum flavour. Hardcore durian lovers will gravitate towards the Horlor, which sits pretty high on the bitter scale with a flesh that clings to the mouth like thick peanut butter.
Keep an eye out for the Musang Queen.
Expect durian sellers to capitalise on the Musang King’s popularity by hawking off the ‘Musang Queen’. This isn’t a new designer breed of durians, according to Lindsay, but a renaming of the Tekka durian, which is a favourite among the durian lovers who are partial to its bitter-sweet taste.
Photo: John Lim
People around the world are eating durians in different ways.
‘The weirdest thing I’ve seen is barbecuing whole durians over a fire. It blackens the shell and when you open it up the durian is oozy gooey and hot, a bit carmelised and custardy,’ Lindsay says. She herself has also prepared durian in several ways – she says cooking unripe durians make good curry. In the Klang Valley, popular durian sellers like Durian King TTDI and Durian SS2 will serve durian cendol or ais kacang, which has a dollop of fresh durian (usually Musang King, but it varies according to the season’s supply) at the very top.
How to choose a ripe durian
Take a whiff along the seams or split lines of the fruit (not the base, which is where the skin is thickest), and you should get a light fragrance. If the smell is too overpowering, chances are the fruit is overripe, while a lack of scent indicates an unripe fruit. ‘You should experience a low level, earthy yet sulfurous smell, like fresh cut grass and scrambled eggs,’ says Lindsay.
Look at the stem
Wiggle the stem: if it feels loose, comes off easily, or even breaks at the ‘bulge’ – known as the abscission zone – the durian is ripe. The colour of the stem also matters: when scratched with a nail, the brown stem should reveal a grass-green interior. Avoid fruits where the stem is missing, shriveled or dark brown throughout; chances are the fruit has been cut early.
Using a rag cloth (a Good Morning towel should be available at good durian stalls), hold the fruit to your ear and shake it. What you should hear are dull, subtle knocks; if it rattles around too loosely with no resistance, the fruit is overripe. Conversely, the absence of sound indicates an unripe fruit.
Place your thumb over one of the swollen lobes of durian – in between the thorns – and press down at where the skin is thinnest. ‘If the durian is ripe, the shell will actually give a little under pressure, like a hard sponge. If it’s not ripe, you might as well be pressing on concrete,’ says Lindsay.
Where to eat durian
If feasting on quality durian over the blaring of police sirens by the roadside is your idea of fun, then Donald’s Durian is a must-visit. Due to the current low season, Donald’s Durian is expected to open towards the end of July, so durian lovers will have to wait a little while longer.
This SS2 landmark is arguably one of the most organised durian shops in town, complete with online delivery services and its own collection of YouTube videos. Its tech-savviness aside, the shop has an exhaustive list of durians, including D2, Musang King, Durian Udang Merah and Durian Thraka.