“Durian Petruk is always better,” said the girl working front
desk at our hotel in Jepara. She giggled, amused that two foreigners
were asking about durian.
We were first introduced to durian Petruk by Sabar, the
businessman who showed us Jakarta’s durian scene. Petruk is the
most well-known variety in Java, and its peculiar shape and flavor
has made it a favorite. The fruit also shares its name with a puppet
in traditional Javanese theater. Sabar didn’t know why, but said
that he had always been interested in the connection. I promised to
try to find out what that connection is.
I wasn’t too impressed by my first taste of Petruk, finding its
lemony overtones a bit of a turnoff. But since durian is so picky
about its growing conditions, to get a real Petruk, one that actually
tastes like a Petruk and not a watered down Kampung, we needed to
visit Petruk’s hometown.
So we decided to go to Jepara, a city on the north coast of Java
that probably sees white people a few times a year. It’s a
launching point to visit Karimunjawa Island, a minor tourist
destination, so Europeans do roll through on occasion. Americans in
Indonesia are few and far between – the girl at the hotel said
she’d never met an American before.
We missed peak durian season by about a month. But our
friendly hostess promised us that we would find durian in Ngabul, the
“durian village”. She recommended that we take the earliest local
bus to see the most market activity. I found this surprising, since
most durian markets we’ve visited so far don’t even open until the
late afternoon. So at 6:30 a.m. the next day we arrived in Ngabul, a
block in the endless city that seemed to stretch all the way from
There was no way we could have missed it – beneath a large
durian statue, a truck was unloading more of the fruit to a cluster
of women, who spread the durians around the courtyard in uneven
A short, wide woman in a maroon tunic grabbed my elbow, smiling
widely and pointing toward her pile. I asked for Petruk. “Aahh
Petruk!” she said in surprise, and then threw back her head and
laughed revealing several gold teeth. How funny, a white person
asking for a specific durian! She dug through her pile until she
found a glaringly green durian with large spikes. Besides being a
different color, it was a different shape than the other durians,
which were round and heavy on the bottom. This one was elongated and
pointy on one end, more like a football.
I didn’t know for sure that it was Petruk, but the fact that it
looked different gave me some confidence. I bought the fruit for
30,000 IDR, a splurge considering that Rob bought several more
durians for only 10,000 each.
The girl at the hotel said that durian Petruk is always more
expensive because it is better.
I asked her why the durian shares its name with the puppet. She
wrinkled up her face, searching for the right words. “Because it is
so skinny,” she said at last.
Puppetry, or Warang, existed before Hinduism arrived in Java, but
the cultures merged so perfectly that most plays tell the story of
the great Hindu epics, the Ramayana or the Mahabharata. While 95% of
Indonesians are now Muslim, the Hindu stories are main stream.
from the pre-Hindu era, and is recognized by his long protruding nose
and angular arms. He’s the comic-relief, and plays jokes on people
that get him into trouble. At one point in his adventures, he loses a
duel and is essentially beat to a pulp. He’s left skinny and ugly.
The durian fruit is considered ugly by many cultures. I guess
the Petruk durian, with its pointy and angular shape, reminded people
of poor Petruk.
I was glad we arrived at the market early. By the time we
left around 7:30, most of the durians had wandered off and the
courtyard was nearly empty. We took our Petruk home to eat for
dinner. Compared to the other durians we purchased, the Petruk was a
little fleshier, with a soft yogurty texture. The lemony flavor
was less pungent than the one in Jakarta, but still there. My
conclusion is that Petruk durian is good, but nothing to write home