Like any other highly seasonal, finicky to produce, potentially spectacular gourmet ingredient, durians inspire intense devotion. This year, while upstarts like the unctuously fruity Black Thorn nip at its heels, Mao Shan Wang (MSW) remains king in Singapore and much of Malaysia. Durian sellers tell tales of farmers planting ever more MSW to meet demand from local fans, plus increasing numbers of consumers from China.
It’s easy to understand MSW’s appeal. Its custardy, luscious, in-your-face swagger hits all the right notes hard and fast, like loud orchestral fanfare. Supping solely on any one kind of durian, however, is like exclusively drinking Bordeaux: However rewarding, it leaves countless other worlds unexplored and, vitally, it discourages growers from exploring them too. A pity, because durian, just like wine, is as multifaceted, fierce and elegant an expression of terroir as any connoisseur could wish for.
“I used to sell durians,” says Chang Teik Seng, aka Durian Seng, of Penang’s famous Bao Sheng farm. “Now I sell flavour.” He tells of his “enlightenment” in 2009, when he began turning his 12ha plantation organic, upon realising how natural husbandry could increase his trees’ health and longevity. On his farm, pruned fruits rot into potassium-rich compost, friendly ants see off insect pests, and variables like worm activity and sun exposure are carefully monitored.
This is because, as in humans, age begets character. Older trees yield especially fine and complex-flavoured fruit, as Durian Seng expounds during his durian degustations. At these, diners taste what the trees deign to drop over half a day. On my visit, these included a Lipan (known as Centipede, too) from a 60-year-old tree, florally perfumed and fondant-silky; a gourd-shaped Hor Lor, an iconic Penang variety, with cacao and muscovado notes and an umami back-taste; and an Ang Hae (red prawn), redolent of chardonnay and cantaloupe.
TERROIR, BRANDS AND THORNY ISSUES
Most “branded” durian cultivars such as MSW and D24 are propagated by grafting clones onto root stock, to ensure consistent flavour traits. Connoisseurs know, however, that fishing off the mainstream often nets untold treasures. For example, old durian plantations across Asia, never plundered for mass farming, often have unusual pedigreed trees particular to the region, microclimate or even land plot. Still more idiosyncratically varied are unbranded “kampung durians”, which are from trees originally planted from unknown seeds.
At Green Acres, an organic fruit farm on Penang Island, owner Eric Chong also holds degustations of bounty from over 30 types of trees, such as local favourites including Kim Hu (Goldfish). I tasted his kampung durians from a century-old tree, whose notes of cognac, candied winter melon and white wine segued into a long, finely balanced bittersweet finish.
He gave up a job in KL’s Putrajaya and moved back to the countryside, so that his son could grow up as close to nature as he himself was in the hunting, fishing days of his youth. A Slow Food advocate, Chong sees durian appreciation as an entry point to relearning respect for the environment. “Come for the durians, stay for the lifestyle,” he says, sharing how eating organic produce drastically improved his health.
The heat waves of this year, however, proved to be a lesson on how capricious nature can be. In Penang, a blazing spring made trees flower profusely. Instead of the typical two or three crop-yielding flowerings and a June-July harvest season, farms saw up to four flowerings over a season stretching from May well into August. Despite this, overall yield was much lower than last year’s, as the drought withheld water needed for fruit growth. Some of Chong’s prized trees died off completely, exhausted from excessive flowering and then aborted fruiting.
Such is the high-risk life of a durian farmer, especially those eschewing chemical control for organic means. High risk, but high rewards: Durian Seng’s trees took a few years to respond to the organic conversion, then began yielding fruit with enhanced flavour.
The first taste you encounter in durian is sweetness; this changes subtly in the hours after a durian falls, as its sucrose breaks down into simpler sugars. Next most salient is bitterness, which can vary from upfront and pointed to a more subtle slant. A rarer taste, which according to Durian Seng is found only in durians from older trees eaten within 30 minutes of their fall, is a fleeting “numbing” quality felt on the tongue and lips.
Your tongue registers the above tastes; your perception of durian flavour is filled out and completed by the fruit’s scent, the sum of a myriad different aroma compounds. To fully appreciate it, taste durian as you would a wine, rolling it around your mouth while inhaling. Floral notes can range from light and fresh, such as vanilla or pandan, to heavy and heady. Alcoholic aroma nuances, more prevalent in fruit from older trees, can hint at grape wines, rice wines, and hard liquors like rum, whisky, sherry, cognac. Durian Seng has found woody, smoky, burnt-rice notes in fruit from his oldest trees.
Many of durians’ sulphur-based aroma molecules also appear in other tropical fruit, vegetables and fermented foods, hence the hints of onion, cabbage, stinky cheese and old meat which haters decry. More pleasant aroma notes include: caramel, from butterscotch to palm sugar; nuts and coconut; coffee and chocolate; dairy, such as milk or butter; egg and custard; fruit, from brightly berry-like to brassy, even citrusy; grain-like, such as popcorn or rice; herbs and spices, as surprising as mustard, clove or mint; and more.
Whether selecting durians to farm or to eat, Durian Seng likens the choice to touring the world. Do you stick to a best-of package itinerary, or wander off and around the beaten track like a backpacker? It seems clear which approach most benefits both palates and biodiversity. Look beyond the durian king, and you can live like one instead.