Red Jungle Durian with the Iban Tribe


Durio dulcis is one of the rarest durian species. With it's bright red shell, it's the sweetest of the durians (as suggested by it's Latin name) but isn't cultivated and is only found in the highland jungles of interior Borneo, where it is becoming increasingly more scarce due to illegal logging. It's even listed on the IUCN Red List of threatened species.

We were actually on the hunt for a different rare durian, the kura kura, or tortoise durian (durio testudinarum) which grows fruit on the roots and trunk of the tree instead of the branches. But when stumbling upon rare and delicious durians, who's going to complain? We were having bum luck anyway - KOMPAKH really and truly is the only resource in Putussibau for tourists and all their guides were out of town. Then we bumped into Linda, a part time English teacher at the high school, who thought we might score some neat durian near an Iban longhouse along the road to Lanjak. She was right! Not only did we spend our Thanksgiving eating the sweetest durian of them all, we had a pretty amazing cultural experience.


Once upon a time, the Ibans were the most feared and venerated tribe in Borneo, renown for the bravery of their warriors in war and headhunting. They weren't really a unified people but a loose collection of river tribes that shared a common language and culture. Each tribe went by the name of the river they lived on, and "Iban" is actually just their word for human, picked up by the British and used to refer to all the natives in the area. I guess that's better than calling them Indians.

We'd already visited a Kayan longhouse in Uma Bawang, but I still had no idea what to expect when our bus screeched to a halt in front of a small wooden bus stand with a dirt road leading off to one side. We were dropping in on them completely unannounced, as the longhouse cannot be reached by phone.Linda led the way up a rough set of stairs carved into a log and onto a wide uncovered platform made of narrow slats. Rice was drying on large woven mats and several women were sitting against the house weaving baskets. I could tell things were very different at this longhouse.

Women and children gather to greet the new baby.

We stepped through a doorway into another world - a dim, wide hallway with dark wooden pillars and a long row of doors. In longhouses throughout Borneo, each family lives in their own apartment set behind a door, and families are even referred to as "doors". This single longhouse had around 30-40 doors, all wall to wall in a long row six feet above the ground. It was a cool, shadowy haven with some pretty surreal lighting. The walls were covered in home made baskets, scoops, wooden hoes, and hats.

As guests, we were expected to stay in the apartment of the headman, who arrived only minutes after us with his wife and newborn baby. A huge crowd gathered to welcome the new infant, and we were invited to sit and share instant coffee and durian with the headman and his friends, who had driven him from Putussibau in their Jeep. They knew quite a lot about durian, and were familiar with six different species including the kura kura durian. One man said that he saw it sometimes while out hunting for wild boars, less than a half a days walk from the longhouse. We were eager to go and find it, but he didn't know where it was. He said that no one eats that durian, so what was the point of remembering where to find it?


crocodile durian

As we sat chatting, the men opened a very strange, oblong durian. They called it the hornbill durian or crocodile durian because it's strange shape looked like the long bill of a hornbill or mouth of a crocodile, and claimed it was the very best kind of durian. Although the elongated shell gave a strange, skinny shape to the flesh, it was a creamy yellow, thick, and almost seedless. Rob claimed it tasted like Musang King, although I would just say it was very good.

 Although they didn't know where the kura kura durian was, they did have a durio dulcis tree nearby, which they call gerinang. Did we want to see it? Right now? Of course! Several of the young men jumped up and in minutes we were on our way to see the rare and delicious dulcis, followed by some little boys who began kicking a crushed durian shell down the road like a soccer ball.  I was excited to be finding the dulcis - I'd read so much about it but never tasted it. Would the smell really be sickening? Was it really so much sweeter than regular durian?

We turned off the road and headed into the jungle. And there they were, like Christmas come early! The red orbs just glowed on the green jungle floor. It was so exciting! Everyone scattered, grabbing the prickly fruits and lumping them into a pile, where a young man began hacking them open with his machete. Unlike most durians, dulcis doesn't have the weakened seams. This means there is no easy way to get them open except chopping them in half, exactly as I said not to in my post about How to Open a Durian. I guess I'm still not a total expert!

The odor of the dulcis was completely different than other durians and strong, with an element of industrial glue. But the flavor was really nice. Sweet is correct! It reminded me of marshmallows, while Rob compared it to a cross between butterscotch and pineapple lifesavers. The flesh was soft and smooth, like melted ice cream, and we had to scoop it out of the hollows of the shell with our fingers. Everyone, especially the kids, obviously liked the durian, so I don't know why they don't gather it more often to take the longhouse. Maybe they will now.


We were still interested in hiring someone to help us find the kura kura durian, but the man who had seen it left that night for Putussibau, and everyone else was busy with renovations on the longhouse's half-rotted porch. Linda had to go back to her normal job teaching high school English, and we were left on our own again. We decided to go back to our Plan B in Putussibau: go to Lanjak and try to find our contact there at the World Wildlife Fund office.

 Before we left, there was one more surprise. Apparently, it’s customary when a guest arrives at the same time as a new baby, to name the newborn after the guest. Since the headman’s new baby was a girl, they gave her my name! I felt honored and a little strange imagining that in a few years, a tiny Iban girl with my name would be running around this longhouse. We said our goodbyes and thanks to little Lindsay and her parents and took the first bus towards Lanjak.



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