Eric Chong hooked his fingers into an incision in the thorny, cement-like husk of a durian fruit and pulled until his forearms and shoulders were taut with exertion. With a jerk the fruit split open to reveal fatty golden lobes of flesh. The eight members of my group “oohed and aahed” and leaned in for photos.
We were visiting Green Acres, a 16-acre organic durian farm in the hillsides of Penang, Malaysia. Here a burgeoning durian tourism industry is encouraging a new generation of growers, like Eric, to open their farms during the late May-August season to groups of durian lovers like us. Over the course of the afternoon, Eric served us flights of different durian cultivars like vineyards serve wines, beginning with the light, syrupy-sweet fruits and ending with those that are richer, earthier, more flavorful, and more stinky.
We even stayed overnight, because many farmers believe the best fruits fall in the evening and early morning just before dawn. For hours after we went to bed, the 5-7 pound fruits crashed onto the roof from trees towering 150 feet or more overhead. Grown wild, durians are among the tallest trees in the rainforest.
Durian tasting is an epicurean take on a fruit which is banned on most forms of public transportation because of its odor that most politely described as “strong.” Cruder descriptions include eating cake in a public outhouse, but we durian lovers say the flavors are a deliciously complex assortment of vanilla, chocolate, cherries, coffee, rum or red wine and yes, an odious hint of garlic.
Every durian cultivar tastes slightly different, and at Eric’s we savored the differences between his 25 or so cultivars. Malaysia has over 100 registered varieties of durian, but each region has its own special cultivars beyond the official list that thrive in particular soils and climates. Many of Eric’s heirloom varieties are over 100 years old, immense buttressed trees that 5 men holding hands couldn’t put their arms around.
The fruits from older trees are prized, but this prevalence of “old varieties” is only part of what makes Penang a hotspot for durian lovers. The other is Penang’s climate and mountainous topography: its terroir, to use wine speak. Penang is an island that juts abruptly upward from the Malaccan Straits. The steep granite hillsides provide good drainage for trees often affected by root rots like phytophtoras, while the cool sea breeze is also believed to keep the trees disease free while adding a slightly salty flavor to the durians.
Even slight changes in weather patterns can affect flavor, and like a sommelier Eric filled us in on the year’s weather patterns as he tugged open another durian. We are lucky to have good weather: a recent rain will result in durians with low flavor and a watery texture, while a flood may kill the trees altogether. On the flip-side, a drought will force the trees to shed leaves and drop fruits before they’ve developed a good flavor.
Selling flavor is largely a new trend, and even on Penang it’s a push-and-pull between growers like Eric preserving old varieties and those switching to well-known commercial varieties like Musang King that can be sold for a higher price to both exporters and foreign visitors from China, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
For all the stink in Western media about durian’s disgusting odor, it has an enormous and growing international fan base and is a thriving export commodity. Like all crops that are commercialized, only a few cultivars are grown for export. In Thailand, it’s estimated that 90 percent of all durians are now one variety, Monthong, and some fear that Malaysia may be heading that way. But Thailand’s drastic loss of diversity has also spurred a small counter-movement of heirloom preservationists who have turned to the tourism niche for support.
At Suan Ban Rao, a durian orchard in the flatlands 2 hours east of Bangkok, we stepped up into a trolley car on large tractor tires. A durian poster was plastered the length of the car. As we bumped around the orchard, Kajohn Puttisuknirun spoke into a microphone and pointed to trees tagged blue, yellow, or red. The trees have been topped, sometimes multiple times, and look ridiculously small compared to the enormous fruits hanging in their branches.
Kajohn’s orchard holds over 100 Thai cultivars that he and his family began collecting 11 years ago when they noticed their neighbors were cutting down local favorites and replacing them with cultivars for export. At the time, they were taking a big risk. They chopped down a prosperous rubber orchard to make way for durian seedlings that would take up to 10 years to produce fruits selling for pennies at local markets.
It was an act of love, but has turned into a worthwhile investment. Now the orchard is a landmark for Bangkok day-trippers and foreign tourists (like us) in search of a culinary adventure. After the tram tour, Kajohn served us a buffet of durian and other local fruits, including foot-long bananas, longkong, rambutans, and jackfruit.
The agritourism model is successful enough that nearby farms have started offering accommodations. Kajohn says it’s a healthier lifestyle than growing for export because visitors to the farm are more tolerant of imperfections like odd shapes or insect damage, so fewer pesticides are needed. His visitors are looking for a novelty, health and flavor — not a perfect product.
Some enterprising durian growers are looking even further back in time, to the fruit’s jungle origins. While only one species of durian is widely cultivated, Durio zibethinus, there are at least seven edible species, most now threatened by deforestation and cultural forgetfulness.
Eko Mulyanto thinks these other species are the future of the niche durian market. On his experimental nursery in Banyuwangi, East Java, he’s been breeding them with Durio zibethinus to make durians that are pink, candy-cane striped, or even marbled yellow, orange, and pink. That variety he calls “Rainbow.”
They’re beautiful and tasty, but Eko is most excited about their antioxidant potential — those bright pigmentations are created by anthocyanins and beta-carotene. His scheme is to cross them with a popular export cultivar, like Musang King, to make a deeper hued, more nutritious fruit that can be sold as a health product.
His plan comes at a time when farms like Green Acres are also experimenting with serving other durian species to groups in search of gustatory novelty, like ours. As we ended our feast, Eric opened a durian with neon green thorns and a bright orange interior the consistency of cream cheese. It belonged to the species Durio graveolens, and for years Eric let the fruits fall and rot because he thought no one would want them. This year he served them.
It’s one of those rare times when I feel good about being a tourist; groups of durian lovers like ours are making small, more diverse farms profitable, and therefore possible. It’s a win-win situation. We said goodnight to Eric and fell into our beds under the durian trees, knowing we could sleep well. At least, until another durian hit the roof.
If you are interested in experiencing the wonders of durian, below are some helpful durian facts and tips:
Durian seeds are large and chestnut-like with a shiny, smooth seed-coat. These attractive seeds vary in color between cultivars and species, from pale tan to reddish-brown to a deep mahogany bordering on black.
Durians are from the equatorial tropics and don’t do well in climates that are dry or cool. If you buy frozen durian, the seeds will no longer be viable; however, you can always eat them.
Selecting and Storing: Healthy seeds should feel heavy and solid. They should not be pliable, float in water, or make noise when shaken. Like most recalcitrant seeds, they need to be kept in a warm, humid place. They are difficult to store because they germinate quickly — typically within 10 days.
Planting: When the seed coat shows cracks and a fat, cream-colored bud begins to emerge, place your seeds lengthwise on top of the soil, not buried. If your climate is dry, cover seeds with clear plastic or lightly sprinkle sphagnum moss or peat over the seeds to trap humidity. Keep the seeds in a tropically warm environment between 75 and 84 degrees Fahrenheit.
Eating: When cooked, durian seeds have a similar texture to baked potato. They are traditionally boiled with salt, or sliced thin and fried into a condiment similar to toasted almonds. They can also be roasted and topped with palm sugar.
Some Southeast Asian cultures believe eating uncooked seeds causes shortness of breath, and research shows the raw seeds contain a toxic fatty acid known to interfere with the working of the heart muscles. However, in Sri Lanka a concoction of raw durian seeds is believed to enhance men’s sexual prowess. Durian seeds are sliced thinly and then left overnight in water. When the water is gelatinous and gooey, the men drink it. They call it Asian Viagra.
Lindsay Gasik is an unremorseful durian addict who uses her fascination with fruit to explore the world. You can follow her adventures on her blog at www.YearOfTheDurian.com or even come with her on a guided durian tour of Malaysia or Thailand. Find her on Twitter: @durianwriter