Ramadan in Durian Season

Ramadan just started last week, right smack in the middle of Malaysia's durian season. Between sunrise and sunset, Muslims are abstaining from both food and water. In the evenings they gather at large markets or buffets set up just for the month-long celebration.

The Islamic year is a full 10 days shorter than the 365 day calendar, meaning that each Ramadan occurs slightly earlier than the year before. For the next few years,  Ramadan will interrupt the durian season. With a good portion of the population fasting all day, I was curious how durian sales would be affected. It's not as if Muslims don't eat at all - they just don't eat during daylight hours. Since most people prefer to eat durian at night anyway; could durian sales go up?

Durian Apom Balik (Malaysian Pancake)

Apom Balik is a type of dessert pancake, and can be made thin like a crepe or thick like a small cake patty. I saw it being made at the Ramadan Market in Gua Musang, but at the time I didn't know what it was. Nevertheless I spent a long time watching, fascinated, as the chefs worked double time to make enough pancakes to meet the hungry lines.

The molds for the pancakes were set atop a long row of metal buckets filled with flaming charcoal. The evening was already hot, and just walking by made me sweat even more. The chefs had formed a sort of assembly line, one person greasing the molds, the other pouring in the dough, while the third flipped and removed the finished pancake.

Raub Durian Orchard

Rob and I visited the Raub Durian Orchard on the evening of the same day we visited Tina and Mr. Chong. Raub is one of the major durian growing regions in Malaysia with many families depending on the fruit to supply the majority of their income. The region grows nearly exclusively Musang King and D24 for export to Singapore, taking advantage of the higher prices fetched by the Singapore market. With Musang King dominating the wholesale market, I began to wonder if Raub, and for that matter peninsular Malaysia, is on its way to losing its durian diversity. 

Singapore Durian Varieties

Singaporeans eat more durian per capita than any durian producing nation. That, combined with the high value of the Singapore dollar, is changing the face of the durian industry as durian producers seek to capitulate to Singaporean tastes.

As much as 90% of the durian in Singapore originates in Malaysia, it's northern neighbor. While Malaysia has two hundred registered durian varieties, only two are regularly sent to Singapore: Mao Shan Wong (aka Musang King) and D24. As more and more farmers in Malaysia eager to cash in on Singapore favorites convert their trees to Mao Shan Wong and D24, other varieties are becoming more rare. Recently, a movement initiated by Leslie Tay of ieatishootipost.sg and Shann Goh of 717 Trading seeks to educate Singaporeans about the value and pleasure of having many varieties. The future of Malaysian durian diversity depends on the Singaporean durian consumer! You have a responsibility! (So go eat more durian)

Musang's Queen

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.

What's a Musang Anyway?

Rob and I were intrigued by the Musang King durian the first time we saw it. The amazing turmeric-yellow flesh of this durian is the most striking of any we've seen yet.

It earned its fame as the King of Durian in 2010, when Stanley Ho, Macau's "King of Gambling" and the 84th richest man in the world, sent his private jet to Singapore and purchased 88 fruits. At an average of 35 RM/kilo, the total came to a whopping 4,800RM ($1,514 USD), not counting the expense of going on a grocery run with a jet.

News of the Durian

Durian Charity for Children

Good news can be hard to come by, but this story is really sweet.

Recently, in Georgetown, Penang, 21 lucky orphans were treated to a feast of durians. Not just old kampungs either, the Bayview Hotel shared 200 fresh durians from Balik Pulau, where some of Malaysia's best durians are grown. When I visited Balik Pulau they were not cheap, either. These kids got try 18 varieties of top notch Penang durian.

Here's the original article from the New Straits Times.

Annual Durian Retreat with the Malaysian Nature Society

I was looking for information about the elephant drop durian when I contacted the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS).  In particular, I was seeking the contact information for Mr. Vincent Chow, the who is quoted in an article by the New Straits Times. Not only did I receive Mr. Chow's phone number, Rob and I were invited along on the Johor branch's annual durian trip to an island off the east coast of Malaysia.

The MNS is an active environmentalist and nature-lover's club. The 300 or so members of the Johor Branch host a number of events, ranging from birding outings, group hikes, photography workshops, scuba trips, and beach clean-ups. Fifteen members attended this year's overnight durian trip, which takes place on a small, remote island without any roads or motor vehicles. The dwindling number of inhabitants get around by speedboat or on the narrow jungle paths forged by wild cows.

Chef Wan's Durian Delight Cheesecake

Chef Wan is a popular television personality in Malaysia. Squeaky, enthusiastic, and bossy, he has risen to stardom . His shows are not only educational, they're hilarious. He was featured on Anthony Bourdain's tour of Kuala Lumpur's Chow kit Market. I loved watching this clip, partly because of Chef Wan's antics and funny faces, but also because Rob and I have spent a lot of time in the fruit section of Chow Kit. It's always fun to see exotic places you've been on TV.

Kickin' it in Johor Bahru

I never expected to spend this long in Johor Bahru. The city is basically overflow from Singapore, the border ooze of all those taking advantage of Singapore's strong dollar. It wasn't even deemed an official city until 1994!

I can't imagine why it was neglected for so long. With a population of 1.8 million people, Johor Bahru is Malaysia's second largest city, a major manufacturing area, and probably the source of Singapore's janitors, maids, and construction workers. It's like Singapore's Tijuana, without all the drugs (Okay, okay, I'm kidding. It's home to a lot of professionals, too).

Kuala Lumpur Interviews

In 2011, China opened trade of Malaysian durian. China is a huge market that already has a taste for durian. Currently, mostly due to its huge population, China is only one of the largest importer of durian in the world. It is predicted that as more Chinese get a taste for imported durian, the durian market will explode! To get a picture of how Malaysia is planning to take advantage of the new durian trade, I had to get in touch with the proper government agencies.

Meeting government officials is one of the most interesting and stressful parts of durian journalism. I've now met with officials in Indonesia and Thailand, but I still get nervous! Twice in Kuala Lumpur I woke early, put on my best clothing, and took public transportation to the fringes of the city to meet with researchers and government staff.

Kuala Lumpur Durian Highlights

Returning to Kuala Lumpur after six months of chasing durian around SE Asia was a wonderful homecoming. All of our travels and adventures in Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, and northern Malaysia were put into perspective. The first six months of Year of the Durian just blurred right by. I hope the next six are as wonderful, and last longer.

Our bus let us off pretty far from China Town, which gave us the chance to work out our sore bus muscles by walking a few kilometers with our luggage. It also provided the opportunity to hit up our old favorite, the Chow Kit wet market. This was our go-to spot for durian back in January, and it didn't let us down this time around either. Lindsay and I had our second encounter with D-24, and then our third, and fourth.

News of the Durian

A Durian Tragedy

Lindsay and I have been intrigued by stories of people dying from falling durians since before this trip began, when two years ago we visited Davao, Philippines and were told that farmers harvested the fruit with football helmets. Since then we've asked in every country about this danger. No one seems to know anyone who has been struck, and many tell us, half believing, that durian has eyes and chooses to fall when it is safe. Lam Fook Chee's death doesn't disprove this, but it is the closest thing to death by falling durian I've come across, and a case when wearing a helmet would've been doubly smart.

Mr. Chee was killed near Raub, Malaysia when a basket of durian fell on him. The 68-year-old was transporting durian in typical fashion, in a large basket on the back of a motorcycle. The paper reports that the durians caused serious injuries to his head. Condolences to his family.

Read the original article at AsiaOne.

Recipe: Durian Sambal

Last week I posted the recipe for tempoyak, the fermented durian paste that is a popular ingredient in traditional Malay cuisine. Like Thailand's durian guan, tempoyak is made with leftover or inedible durian and is a way to preserve excess. But unlike durian guan, no one eats tempoyak with a spoon!

One of the most common ways to use tempoyak is in sambal, a spicy condiment that can be served with anything. It's like the Malay version of ketchup, except that its most important ingredient is ground chiles! I don't know how Malaysians cooked before the introduction of the chile pepper from the New World, because everything I've tentatively tasted via prodding from well-meaning Malaysian hosts is spicy enough to bring me to tears. I was blown away by the sheer heat of the tempoyak dish we were served in Jerantut, and my esophagus burned for a good hour after.

Feeding Elephants Durian

After nearly two months looking for the fabled elephant drop durian, Rob and I have started wondering if it really is just an urban (or jungle) legend. Why on earth would an elephant would swallow a durian whole? Wouldn't the spikes bother their intestinal tract? Why wouldn't an elephant just crack it open and slurp out the gooey goodness?

We wanted to see for ourselves how an elephant might eat a durian. So Rob contacted Mr. Zulfiki at the Kuala Gandah Elephant Orphanage and Sanctuary and asked if we could feed their elephants some durian. My friend Rachel was visiting K.L. from Singapore so we decided to make the trip together.

Durian Murder Mystery

Death by durian is a topic of uneasy humor in places with durian trees, as injury by falling durians is not uncommon. A durian's damage potential is about the same as a medicine ball covered in thick, incredibly sharp spikes.

In melodramatic Thai soap operas, durian shells are the weapon of choice for women who want revenge on their husband's mistress. Art critics jeeringly describe women running around with durian shells, trying to land one on their female enemy's (or husband's) cheek.

Kuala Lumpur Shopping Expedition

Kuala Lumpur has more shopping malls than durian stalls. It seems like on every corner there is a shining, multi-storied monstrosity dedicated to the religion of consumerism.  I really don't know how there are enough people with enough money to keep this number of giant shopping malls alive.

I had some birthday money and wanted some stuff, so Rob and I decided to check out what a mall looks like in Malaysia. I didn't want to go to just any mall, I wanted to go to the biggest and most consumer-crazy mall. So we went to Midvalley Megamall, which has a floor space of 4.5 MILLION square feet! And just in case that wasn't enough mall for us, there are two other malls on either side of Midvalley, connected by sky bridges.

Durian Chalet and the Jungle

Taking the boat to Taman Negara National Forest was Rob's idea. The boat used to be the only option, but now there is a road that runs from Jerantut to Kuala Tahan, the small village at the entrance to the park. The bus runs four times a day and costs only 7 RM each, but Rob thought taking the boat would be a cooler way to enter the world's oldest rainforest. "C'mon," he said, "It'll be like going down the Amazon."

The boat is a long wooden canoe powered by what sounds like a lawnmower motor. It takes 2 1/2 hours to cruise up the brown colored river to Taman Negara. Although we did stop at a beach and pick up two Orang Asli guides, it's mostly a gimmick for tourists. I'm glad we did it though, as it was a highlight of our otherwise slightly underwhelming jungle adventure.

News of the Durian


Eat durian in your hotel! What?!

A hotel in Georgetown, Penang, has become the first in Malaysia to allow customers to bring our favorite stinky fruit inside. Sneaking durian past the front desk is fun, but it would be a nice experience to eat durian openly in the lobby of a hotel or in the comfort of a room instead of on the sidewalk. Maybe this place will even become a mecca of durian tourists.

Here's the story from The Star.

Missing King

Most tourists pass through Kota Bharu on their way to the Perhentian Islands. We durian tourists go where there's durian, which means staying on the mainland.

Kota Bharu is the capitol of Kelantan, the northeastern province of Malaysia which borders Thailand. For a town without a major touristic draw, there are a surprising number of tiny museums. Most seemed to celebrate Kota Bharu's celebrity status as the ex-royal city of the Kelantan Sultanate, including the Royal Museum, the Museum of Royal Traditions, and the Royal Palace.  However, even wikitravel doesn't suggest visiting any of the museums, probably because none offer English translations.