Durian Petruk: Java's Favorite Durian

“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 Jepara.

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 piles.

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.

Petruk is a clown-servant not found in either Hindu epic. He dates 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 about.  :P