Sheer dumb luck led us to our most exciting durian experience so far. Unbeknownst to us, Tina Chong was already famous in the durian world. A one-woman powerhouse in what is generally a man’s business, Tina is partially responsible for the Musang King’s fame and title. More impressively, she’s a former Guinness Beauty Queen and goes about her business in platform shoes, jean shorts, and a newspaper boy hat jammed over her high ponytail. We had no idea just what we were in for; when we asked to visit her orchard she invited us to spend the night at her durian orchard.
The Musang King was
registered in 1993 in Tanah Merah, a district in the far north of
Malaysia near Kota Bahru. At the time, it was given the code name D197
and the local name Raja Kunyit (Turmeric King), referring to the
durian’s bright yellow flesh. Raja Kunyit was already a popular
variety, and in the early 1990’s when Tina was planting her durian
orchard, it was the variety she favored.
Local legend has it that the reason Raja Kunyit does so well in
Tina’s orchard is that the original Musang King tree was discovered only
a few miles away, in what is now an palm oil plantation called Chinteck
Estate. A very long time ago, someone took a cutting from the tree to
Tanah Merah, where it was widely cultivated and finally registered with
the government in 1993, under the code name D197. Tina is responsible
for bringing the Musang King back home. Unfortunately, the original tree
was cut down to make way for oil palm, so no one will ever get to taste
the original Musang King.
Musang King is currently regarded as the best durian in Malaysia. It received its name from the Chinese-Malaysians, who in my experience, operate the majority of durian farms. They told me that in Chinese culture, the highest quality, most sought-after premium version of anything is called the king. As Musang King became established as Malaysia’s best durian, it was colloquially known as the king durian
from Gua Musang, or the Musang King. The durian received its name from its birth place, not because it’s the favorite durian of the musang animal. Yet there is an indirect connection. Gua Musang
translates as “Musang’s Cave,” referring to a local legend about a large
cave that may be haunted by a pack of ghostly civet cats.
Tina told us she started her durian orchard because she loves durian. When she was a child, she got in trouble for stealing durian and decided that when she grew up she would own a lot of durian trees. She worked as a hair stylist in Singapore and Johor Bahru until she saved enough to buy her 18 acres of virgin rainforest an hour outside of Gua Musang. There she has planted around 700 trees, 400 of which are currently old enough to bear fruit. Eighty percent are Musang King. The rest are a mix of D24 and old kampung durian trees that she is slowly converting to her favorite variety by grafting.
Tina’s boyfriend accompanied us to the orchard to help translate. For some reason he declined to share his name with us, suggesting that in the book I could just call him Mr. Anonymous. I teasingly shortened the name to Mr. A. I thought it was really strange that he wouldn’t tell us his name, but he was really nice. We appreciated his immaculate English, which he acquired attending university in Nebraska. He and Tina met at her durian stall. “She is really quite impressive,” he admitted to me. “She is a very hard worker.”
Tina’s farm is a forty minute drive up and down a winding, rattling,
unpaved road leading into the mountains. I had never been on a road so
rough and was very impressed by her driving skills. She makes the drive
four times a day, ferrying durians out of the orchard in the back of her
truck. As the truck crawled over ponderous rocks and waded through
mountain streams, I imagined the catastrophe this road would be in my
little Toyota Corolla back home. I finally understand the purpose of
While Tina cooked dinner, we enjoyed the beauty and serenity of the orchard. Already the durians were beginning to drop and we heard the distinct thunks and thuds through the quiet hum of evening insects, and the louder hum of the generator. When it was thoroughly dark and we had finished eating, Tina led us on a night-time tour of the orchard. I was secretly hoping to see the Musang animal, but we didn’t. Instead we enjoyed the company of Tina’s entourage of dogs, who follow her everywhere.
It was a thrill to collect the durians in the dark while the night settled in around us. Tina used a strong headlamp to sweep the ground under the trees, searching for the gleam of a freshly fallen durian. We sat at a picnic table while Tina cracked the durians open with an expert flick of her machete, oohing and aahing at the revelation of each golden pod. She cooed with delight when she found a particularly good one, insisting that we try. The gooey flesh was enveloped in a thin skin that allowed it to separate neatly from the seed, giving a slight resistance when bit so that the soft innards gushed out in a perfect yellow cream. The flavors ranged from sweet with a surprising metallic tang to the mouth-numbing tingle that we first experienced at Bao Sheng’s. I’ve never had more perfect durian than those I ate under the black ceiling of sky with the Queen of Musang King. It was like a dream.
Tina’s lucky dogs eat Musang King on a regular basis, wolfing down the seeds as well. She generously shared several pieces with them, demonstrating their preference for Musang King by offering them two varieties at once. Even more hilarious was the dog’s reaction to the fruit that had fallen from her one Thai durian tree. Not only did the dogs choose Musang King over the Thai durian every time, they refused to eat it when it was the only fruit offered. Not satisfied with this display, Tina placed the Thai durian on one dog’s tongue, closing its muzzle around it. The dog spat the seed out and sniffed it apprehensively while we just about died of laughter.
The next morning started early. Every day Tina rises at 4:30 AM to begin collecting the durians that have fallen during the night. She and her two hired help ride motorcycles up and down the shadowy orchard’s hilly terrain, searching the cleared ground with flashlights. Nets are emptied and the fruits at the top of the trees that have been tied to the branches with plastic twine are lowered to the ground using a clever pully-system.
It was still dark while she used a bristle brush to clean the durians of leaves and debris and sorted them into piles by variety. Rob and I took a turn brushing the durians, although we were so slow at the task I don’t know if we were much help. I certainly wasn’t. I was too focused on trying to get a few good pictures. I don’t have much experience taking shots in the dark, and had to fumble and experiment with my flash. Tina was a really good sport and let me take about a million shots of her brushing, sorting, and packing the durians.
The sky was just beginning to lighten when her brother showed up to help her sort and pack the A-Grade Musang King’s for shipment to Singapore. Then she rushed indoors to take a quick shower and put on her make-up before making the 2-hour drive to Raub, where she sells her durians to various wholesalers. Rob and I wanted to see the distribution process and had asked beforehand if we could come along in the truck. This would be our first peek at how the durians get from the farm to the cities.
On an average day Tina sells around 1,000 kilos of durian. That morning we collected only 300 kilos. She looked slightly disappointed as she surveyed the night’s catch. We went to Raub with the durians piled high in the back of only one truck, instead of the usual two. I got a kick out of the way the durian thorns screeched and squeaked on the window just behind my head as the truck bounced down the mountain. I’ll cover the distribution in a future post, where Rob and I trace the
durians sold at 818 Durian Stall in Singapore back to the supplier in
Raub. Raub turned out to be a treasure trove of durian information!
Around 11 AM, we waved goodbye to the durians, now on their way to Singapore. We were sad at the thought that it was also time to say goodbye to Tina and Mr. A. But Tina had more surprises
up her sleeve. Our sleepover and morning outing with her turned out to
be just the beginning of a long and very interesting day in Raub.