Cold, wintry times in Australia are a sharp contrast to the warm, humid nights in Malaysia where I recently enjoyed luscious durians with friends and relatives. Durian is the emperor and empress of fruit, regardless of whatever Wikipedia might say about the rambutan being the national fruit of Malaysia.
Durian trees usually stand tall and stately. But nowhere near as tall, relatively speaking, as the enormously high prices the fruit commands at the start of the season, on par with fresh fruit sold in Japan’s upmarket Tokyo and Kyoto department stores. These days, shorter durian trees have been ‘manufactured’ which makes it easier to harvest the durians instead of having to wait for the fruit to drop.
In July, I visited Malaysia and was overjoyed when a former classmate, Shindi, whom I had not laid my eyes on for several decades, brought me a small fresh durian from her tree as a treat, wrapped in several layers of paper and carried along in a plastic bag. The durian was delicious and, although small, had tiny seeds coated with yellow flesh. I was quite thrilled when I later had an opportunity to see and admire the tree that bore this amazing fruit, although I had to be cautious and admire it from a distance as it was guarded by three German Shepherds.
Quite conceivably, durian trees can grow in northern Australia where the climate is just as hot and humid as South East Asia and Australians should be able to buy a variety of durians. Unfortunately, in Melbourne we are limited to a choice of durian frozen in their thorny shells, or frozen durian already prised out of its shell and encased in clear plastic boxes. I have yet to come across a Melbourne durian vendor, usually an Asian grocery shop, which can offer a range of durians to the discerning gourmand.
By contrast, in Malaysia during the durian season, aficionados can select fresh durians based on their preference for taste, texture, colour, flavour and colour and of course, their affordability. Durian vendors can cater for the most sophisticated of palates with a large variety of durians on offer such as Black Thorn (the latest craze), Sultan, Udang Merah ( means Red Prawn), Traka, Raja Kunyit (means Tumeric Prince), Ho Lor, XO, Emas (means Gold), Mas Selangor (means Selangor Gold), Mas Pahang (means Pahang Gold), Tawau, etc. Don’t worry, despite the name, the Udang Merah does not taste like a prawn, it’s just that the colour of the durian is not a pale yellow but perhaps more inclined to an orangey red. There are also varieties which are numbered rather than named.
Durians are sold in all sorts of temporary premises ranging from open trucks, roadside stalls under the shelter of trees to roadside pavements and open walkways beside commercial premises. Durians are also sold in ‘wet’ food markets and western style supermarkets. For those who wish to consume fresh durians on the spot, there are Malaysian outdoor durian cafés which cater for the durian devotees 24/7. While a quick supper after dinner and before bedtime might be more convenient, there are those who feast solely on durians during their lunch breaks, knowing that they do not have time to rush off to eat anything else.
My cousin George and his friend, Ju Woey, took me out one evening to Mr David Lim’s, a highly rated durian vendor who takes pride in recommending his durians and the order in which they should be consumed. It is important, he declares, to start off with one of the more humble durian which has a simple delicious taste which he rates as either a number 1 or number 2 and end with a durian with complex flavours with a 9 or 10 rating, 10 being the supreme rating. The highlight of our evening was the Musang King, rated 9. Unfortunately for me, all the number 10 rated durians were sold out.
George, who is a devoted durian fan, describes the taste of the Musang King as: “Heavy fudgy-cheesy textured flesh with aromas of custard cream and a faint musty note in there somewhere” – I challenge anyone to taste a Musang King durian and come up with a more interesting description.
We did wonder what was the input of the Musang into the creation of this durian’s flavour. Musang is the local Malaysian squirrel, tiny and smaller than a ring tail possum, but with a bushy tail. Mr Lim assured us that the durian was named after the town where it originated and that the Musang had no particular input into the aroma or the taste of this exceptional durian. (Those who do not like durians might doubt the lack of involvement by the Musang).
Durians come in all shapes and sizes and each is a work of art. So how does one choose a durian without the services of an expert like Mr Lim? Some judge the fruit by the shape and size of the thorns and others pick them up and rattle the durians to check the ripeness and ratio of flesh to seed. One should never judge the amount of durian flesh purely by the external dimensions of the fruit. Importantly, the durian must not be split open at the end as it would then be over-ripe. It must have a really nice aroma and no signs of worm holes, although others claim that worm holes are a good guide as the worms have determined which durians are best to consume.
This fruit is banned from confined spaces in buses, trains, planes and hotels because of the rich, full aroma which is lovely to many but, unhappily, repellent to those who have yet to learn to appreciate this creamy, luscious fruit. The desperate have been known to attempt to smuggle vacuum sealed durians onto planes so that they can continue enjoying this fruit outside of Malaysia but none have been known to succeed in getting past the vigilant Malaysian customs officials.
Malaysians’ obsession with the durian has led some restaurants and cafes to offer “Buka Puasa” buffet dinners with a range of treats including durian mousse cakes, durian chocolate trifles, durian ice cream and other delicacies made from durian. The drawing power of durians was also evident in the advertised local tours to durian plantations in the hillside town of Balik Pulau in the Malaysian state of Penang, to admire and to consume the fruit.
Durian consumption is just part of the general social dining mores in Malaysia. During July, there were cries of protests from Malaysians of all races and religions against the government proposal to shorten food vendor hours from the current 24/7. Never had I witnessed such unity among Malaysians as on this occasion when there was a threat to their dining expectations. In the end, the Prime Minister of Malaysia had to step in and announced that the proposed trading restrictions would not become law.
One of the reasons given for the 24 hour service was the need to provide food for tourists who come to Malaysia. This is quite laughable as it is unlikely that a foreign tourist would know where to go to enjoy local treats unless escorted by a local. Also, many of the eating places are in the suburbs which are mainly accessible only by car. It can be more difficult for tourists, both western and Malaysian, to find the best eating spots without local knowledge. The lucky tourist enjoying typical Malaysian hospitality might be fortunate enough to be taken out to a durian dining experience. There is nothing like a delicious, aromatic durian to fill one with contentment and deep happiness. After a wonderful durian feast, one can retire for the night feeling that all is right with the world and have happy dreams of consuming more durians.