A three-day drive around West Pahang, Malaysia, left us well acquainted with the robust flavors of the durian.
My first experience with the durian fruit wasn’t a pleasant one. I vividly remember evacuating the remnants, packing it back in its ‘product of Thailand’ box and driving far from home to dispose of the fruit, pungent scent and all.
Despite my initial lack of appreciation for the fruit, I found myself sitting in a hotel in Kuala Lumpur about to embark on a “grand durian tour” some five years later.
The three-day drive around West Pahang, Malaysia, would see us savoring the durian, the thorny fruit so loved in many parts of Southeast Asia thanks to its robust flavor.
A chance encounter with fruit hunter Rex, on the Kinabatangan River in Borneo had led me here. A young botanist from China with boxy glasses and a hip haircut, Rex had dedicated his life to durian after moving to Singapore.
These days, he charms travelers with alluring descriptions of the fruit’s incredible flavors, as well as stories of adventures in which he traverses jungles and hunts for new durian species.
I was particularly enthralled by the stories of durian’s expanding reputation as the most beloved fruit in Southeast Asia, so much so that I convinced Rex to take me on a journey to discover the king of fruit.
The next day, we journeyed off the highway and began passing roadside durian stalls. None matched up to Rex’s high standards.
It was getting late and we hadn’t had a taste. Finally, we stopped at a fruit stand, whose only customers were a young couple. I asked them what they loved about the fruit and they revealed that it reminded them of childhood days. The durian season was a happy time for them as it brought the family together to the countryside.
Unbeknownst to me, Rex had already found his durian of choice while I was making conversation.
The boy behind the counter pried the fruit open and the spiked shell fell away to reveal a tender yellow mass. Still holding my breath, I slipped a morsel of the fruit inside my mouth. Something was different from the first time. The scent tickled my nostrils, the taste was sweet and floral, and the texture, custard-like.
I soon learnt that the flavors of a durian were multi-faceted and complex, with various essences emerging at different times of the eating process in the same way cheese or wine reveals itself.
Rex proceeded to explain that this was a D24, one of two-hundred varieties of commercially-produced durian. It had fallen from a tree this morning in a nearby farm.
“You like it?” Rex asked. I nodded, my mouth still full but smiling.
Starting from a hotel in the town of Raub, we began the next day early. First, we stopped at Uncle Thing’s Farm in Sungai Raun. What looked like a modest farm at first, revealed itself to be a bustling operation with workers nitrogen freezing fresh durians and packing them for shipment to China.
Uncle Thing came away from his work and extended his calloused hand for a handshake. He shared with us a taste of his prized work, a box of fresh and frozen durian. The frozen durian resembled gelato in terms of its thick and creamy texture, and I had to stop myself from eating it all.
Next, we encountered Gor Fook Durian. In the center of a tiny village, the shop front had a distinct appearance–an electric sign advertising all-you-can-eat durian as well as visits to their nearby farm. We hopped in the back of a pick-up truck and drove fifteen minutes down the muddy road.
At the farm, our guide proudly showed us what he claimed to be the oldest mao shang wang tree in the world. Rex looked at it skeptically, but said it was possible that this was true. The mao shan wang cultivar is believed to be the crème de la crème of durians, thanks to its combination of bitter and sweet flesh.
Later we were offered a freshly fallen, firm fleshed D88 durian, which was said to be almost as good.
After a night at the Gor Fook guesthouse, we made our way to the last stop, Eight Acres, a secluded orchard, surrounded by jungle and palm oil plantations.
There we met Uncle Kam, a kind faced man in his 60s, who eagerly showed us around his orchard.
The sprawling grounds were filled not only with durian but a wide variety of native trees. He also gave us a tour of the uniquely designed guesthouse rooms and cottages. Uncle Kam’s vision was for Eight Acres to serve as a place to reintroduce city people back to nature. We too, got closer to nature with a taste of perfectly ripe D24.
Heading back in the heavy traffic of Kuala Lumpur, I fondly recalled the friendly smiles of the durian farmers of West Pahang. Now, I could truly appreciate the hard work of growing the fruit so often maligned by the rest of the world.
I was finally initiated to the cult of the durian.
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