“There are three people you should never trust: Used car salesmen, lawyers, and durian vendors,” joked Leslie Tay of Singapore’s most popular foodie blog, ieatishootipost. We were sitting at one of his preferred durian stalls while I told him about our disappointing evening at Singapore’s most famous durian hotspot: Sims Avenue in the Geylang District, also known as “Durian Street.”
We had been warned about the Geylang durian crooks, but I was still incredulous as I described to Mr. Tay and his friend how a vendor earnestly tried to sell us a large Thai fruit under the name and price of “Musang King,” the most expensiveand prized durian on the market which sells for as much as 5 times the price of a Thai durian. This is an example of Durian Fraud, when durians are
sold to customers illicitly, ripping the customer off through deceit or even causing sickness due to harmful chemicals (no joke!).
I’ve actually taken the definition for durian fraud almost word-for-word from Wikipedia’s explanation of wine fraud. I just switched the word “wine” for “durian” because it’s exactly the same concept. I guess durian culture is even more similar to the wine scene than I had imagined! During our travels, Rob and I came across many different techniques used by vendors hoping to pass off their hard-to-sell durian.
Geylang may have a reputation as Singapore’s red-light district, but the incidence of durian fraud there isn’t particularly more rampant than it is anywhere else (except perhaps, Thailand, which appears not to deal in trickery at all). That night, we were glad we had already been tricked many times before, and were on the lookout for trickery.
Here are 10 tricks and deceptions to be aware of when purchasing durian.
Trick #1: Overcharging Durians
A durian that costs too much isn’t necessarily a bad durian, but being ripped off tends to put a damper on what could be otherwise be a delectably fantastic experience.
Remember that most durian vendors expect you to haggle with them. The exception is swanky durian locales and Thailand, where the prices are clearly marked and non-negotiable. Most durian vendors don’t post prices. Instead, the durian vendor will come up with a number based on your appearance and his mood that day. If you look rich, foreign, or Caucasian the number is likely to be higher.
Some regions have a tendency to rip you off more than others. Rob and I had a particularly hard time in Java, Indonesia, where vendors would sometimes ask up to ten times the durian’s real value. They’re not being pernicious or even trying to rip you off. They expect you to play the haggling game. If you simply accept their original offer, that just means you’re an idiot.
Learn to haggle. If you’ve never haggled, start with this guide to haggling.
Trick #2: Lying About Durian Variety
The durian in the picture looks a lot like Musang King, the most coveted and therefore expensive variety on the market. But it’s not. It’s a Musang King look-alike.
Musang King, also known as Mao Shan Wong, is famous and the most likely variety to be fraudulent (fraudulated?). It’s bright, deep yellow flesh, strong bitter flavor and powerful name have spread it’s reputation into big bucks countries like China, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan.
Those folks may have heard of Musang King, but have no idea what one should look or taste like. Easy suckers.
The price of Musang King and other renown durians — like Gan Yao, Monthong, Black Thorn, or D-24 — can be as high as 3-4 times the price of uncultivated fruits or lesser known varieties. This gives durian vendors the incentive to fake-out unwary and naive tourists, like one fellow with Thai durians on Sims Avenue who read Rob and me as clueless and decided to try his luck.
The vendor offered us the Thai durian, probably Chanee, but claimed it was Musang King. Rob was amused that a vendor would try to substitute with a Thai durian, which look so outwardly different from most Malaysian durians. The Chanee can develop a rich yellow color and shape that closely resembles Musang King. We were lucky to be paying attention and avoided paying premium for a fake. We weren’t in Geylang to eat Thai durian.
If this happense to you, before getting angry, remember that some small street vendors may not know much about their durians, and could just be repeating the lie given to them by their distributor.
Buy expensive varieties from reliable sources, or familiarize yourself with spike type and learn how to identify top variety durians, especially Musang King.
Trick #3: Whittling The Stem
This trick gets us into some of the more mean-spirited ways of deceiving customers out of a good durian.
When ripe, durians separate from the tree at a weakened groove on the stem. Even if plucked early, a durian is not ripe until this “joint” has come loose and fallen off. One of the most sure-fire ways of selecting durian by ripeness is by the looseness (or gone-ness) of the stem above this joint.
Wiley durian vendors will fool you by cutting the stem below the joint, or right at the joint, and then whittling it into a convex shape similar to what naturally happens when it falls. These vendors will insist that all their durians fell on their own, assuring a quality taste experience that turns sulfurously disappointing at first bite.
Smell, smell smell. No smell, they’re not ripe and unless you like crunchy durian, you won’t be happy.
Trick #4: Adding Odor
The smell is by far the most important element in choosing a good durian. That’s why you’ll see durian aficionados literally huffing the spikes.
Unfortunately, this technique is not fool proof. Durian crooks can fool even those familiar with the fruit by adding odor (although probably not the Great Durian Master Mr. Chang). This trick is so sneaky and deceitful that anyone who does this should burn in a hell of half-roasted durian shells for all of
Underripe durians lack that ungodly, get-in-my-tummy-now (or-run-away-fast) aroma. They tend to smell sort of like grass. To fix the odor problem, a vendor will take the flesh of a fully ripe or overripe durian and mix it with water. Then he’ll put it in a squirt bottle and spray it all over the outside of the durians he wants to sell. A little tropical sun and within 10 minutes he’s got perfectly dry, deliciously odoriferous durian. Mmmmm. Not.
Trick #5: Artificial Ripening
This is not always a trick. In Thailand, it’s common knowledge that durian dealers, like the man featured above, paint an ethylene producing yellow paint onto the cut stems of the durians. Almost all durians everywhere wear the mark of their artificial ripening as a sign of high quality – it means the durian is not overripe and has not touched the ground.
Artificial ripening is only a nasty trick if the dealer markets his durian as having fallen on their own and doesn’t disclose that his durians were plucked early and ripened artificially.
In such situations, it’s unlikely the vendor used an ethylene-producing paint. Most likely he used calcium carbide, an industrial chemical sometimes used for welding. Use of calcium carbide as a ripener is banned in some countries. It’s cheap, it’s easy to use, and it works, if not well.
By mimicking the effect of the fruit hormone ethylene, calcium carbide speeds the thinning of the fruit skin and the softening of the fibers. The effect is a fruit that is edible but often unevenly ripe.
Currently, lobbyists in India and Malaysia are fighting to ban the use of this chemical ripener due to side effects like vomiting, diarrhea, burning or tingling sensation, numbness, headache and dizziness.
This is a trick you definitely want to avoid. Read more: The Effect of Carbide in Fruit Ripening
Use other techniques to determine ripeness, or use your intuition to decide if the vendor seems shady.
Trick #6: Rigging The Scale
Years ago in the Philippines, when Rob and I knew nothing about durians, a roving durian salesman peddling from his bike offered us a 6 kg durian. It was admittedly a big durian, but when he placed it on the scale we were shocked. It didn’t seem double the weight of it’s normal sized peers. We bought it (that’s the noob move) and then felt like gluttonous pigs when we devoured the whole thing and wanted more.
Being Americans, we still had no concept of what a kilogram means, which is how I explain this little bit of idiocy. Later, we went back and the man offered us an even larger durian, 7 kg. This one didn’t look particularly giant either. This time Rob wised up, and put his 1.5 liter water bottle on the scale. The scale was nearly 3 kg off! So much for our gluttony.
Rigging scales happens to a lesser degree in other places, but we really noticed it in Davao city in the thick of the sidewalk crush outside NCCC Mall about 3 blocks from Magsaysay Durian Park. In fact, just don’t bother buying from those guys. They buy all the rejected durian from the quality vendors at Magsaysay Park and then try to sell it at 1/3 the price, plus a little weight bonus.
Learn what a one kilogram durian looks like. When in places with a tendency to rig scales, carry a water bottle. Most people can’t say no to testing the scales, and if they’re significantly
off they’ll give you the true deal.
Trick #7: Hiding The Open Side
When a durian has already been opened with a knife (and not by splitting itself), it means that somebody else has already tasted and rejected it.
What makes you think you want it?
Durian vendors typically pile the rejected durians and sell them at a lower price. You are free to buy them, but be aware that these are probably not as good as the rest of the durians for sale.
When a devious durian vendor spots a foreign durian virgin, they’ll probablyreach for their pile of discards. Sometimes they don’t even try to hide the fact that it has already been opened, thinking (probably correctly), that the greenhorn won’t know or care.
I’ve also seen vendors try to hide the fact that the durian is already opened by hiding that section against his large gloved palm, while displaying to me the unopened side. He’ll proceed to open that side and let the buyer look/taste. If the buyer agrees to it, he’ll turn slightly away and then hack impressively at the fruit in a way that the buyer may never see the previous slit at all. The buy may never even realize they have just purchased a durian from the discard pile, although they may wonder why one side of the fruit tastes slightly overdone.
Always examine all sides of the durian before purchasing.
Trick #8: The Switch
I’ve only heard of this from news reports in Singapore, where apparently durian thuggery is pretty intense.
Here’s how this trick goes. The durian vendor is obsequious and nice. He helps you pick out a few really good durian, gives you a great deal, and you are super super stoked. You go sit at your table, or ask him to pack it for home. Because you are having such a great experience, you trust him and turn your back. Mistake! While you’re not looking it, he replaces the durian you picked with some bad durian that he can’t sell. When you get home, you open your package and take a bite to find… a bummer.
Since technically you already “picked out” those durian, you can’t at this point take them back. It’s a breach of the unspoken durian contract. Double bummer. And since you are in Singapore, you just paid 100 bucks to get swindled. Ouch.
Never turn your back on a durian vendor unless you already know and trust him, or you are at a high-end stall with a reputation to defend.
Trick #9: Hiding Defects
There are a few exterior signs that a durian is defective. Large soft or discolored patches indicate a phytoptera or other fungal infection, cracking denotes overripeness, and holes suggest the presence of worms.
Durian worms are pretty commonplace, even in really high quality durian. In fact, seeing a worm hole can be a good thing because it means the durian probably wasn’t sprayed too much.
But, it means that a large portion of the durian you are paying for
is more than inedible, it’s disgusting. The durian
should have a lower price, regardless of quality.
Durian worms make a small but visible hole in the shell, and sometimes you can see the debris of the digested durian seed (the poop) around the opening. Vendors, and buyers too, can tell when a durian has been infested by worms before opening it.
At carry-away places, a vendor will sometimes hide the wormholes or fungal spots by opening the durian on the uninfected side. While you investigate the perfect flesh, the damage is cradled against the large palm of his heavy glove where you can’t see it. Then when you get home, you open it up to find a half-spoiled durian. Rotten.
Trick # 10: Nailing it Shut
This last technique was told to me by a guide in Sarawak who used to sell durians. I’ve never come across a durian nailed shut, and I’m not sure how the vendor could get the nail in there without making a big hole, but I’ve been assured it is done.
The reason for nailing a durian shut is that once a durian has been opened, either by a knife or by it’s own ripening process, nobody wants to eat it. It’s believed that most of the flavor leaves with the odor, and a cracked open durian is a sign that it’s probably not very fresh.
According to the guide, a small tack or thin nail is driven into the core of the durian towards the tip to keep the durian from peeling itself open. This keeps the durian shut, and nobody can tell from the outside that it’s overripe. Bum luck for everyone except the vendor!
Bottom Line: Pay more money to go to places with a reputation, or have low expectations and be on your toes when buying cheap durian.
These are all the tricks that I experienced or was told about during our Year of the Durian. If you’ve ever been tricked, or know someone who was had by a durian vendor, please share your story in the comments below.