The sun was still level with mist over the river when we wandered down to the Saratok Market. It was about 7 a.m, but while the town and me were still half-asleep, everyone at the market had apparently been drinking cham coffee-tea for hours.
I was at a point with Sarawak’s morning markets where I’d been to a lot of them, in rapid succession, and I wasn’t super excited to roll off my yoga mat and go. It was more like completing a checklist. I expected maybe some yellow-fleshed Graveolens durian or Durio kutejensis, like they were selling at the Saratok Rest Stop just 6km back toward the highway. Best-bet some orange Durio graveolens.
Instead, we discovered that they were cooking wild durians. Suddenly I was awake. This I hadn’t seen before.
Scroll down for the video version if it’s still too early for reading blog posts.
About Saratok Market
The Saratok Market has a large, spacious and surprisingly clean market complex for a town that otherwise feels like the sleepy backwaters.
It’s located right on the banks of the Krian River — brown and sluggish, rimmed with the muddy banks and a few mangrove stragglers.
Once per year, boat races on the river draw crowds. The rest of the year, it’s crickets.
To one side of the market, facing the river, is a Chinese temple called Tua Pek Kong. You’d think it was really old, but it’s not.
It was built in just 1981.
According to the nice gentleman who explained to me how they like to cook durian, Saratok’s primarily Chinese population believe the temple protects the town from flooding.
The cynic in me immediately googled the last time there was a big flood in Saratok. It was last year, in October, 2016.
Durio Kutejensis (Pakan)
Entering the market, my eyes swept up and down the narrow sidewalk that rimmed the market. It’s not a big market, so I figured I’d take a quick inventory, get some fruit for breakfast, and go back to the hotel.
I stayed a lot longer than I expected.
The small, bulbous little durian species was everywhere. Piled on the ground, poking out from between leafy vegetable boughs, even hanging from the walls.
It seemed like each vendor had one or two tucked among their piles. There was more Durio kutejensis around then there was the normal white-fleshed durian that most people eat.
Then I noticed baskets of the chopped, deseeded flesh. I stopped to inquire what they were doing with it.
Sayur Buah Pakan (Unripe Durio Kutejensis)
“It’s Buah Pakan. It’s for cooking one,” said a small man in a crisp white-collared shirt and slacks. He’d stopped when he saw me hovering over the baskets of chopped durian flesh. His breath smelled like coffee.
“How do you cook it?” I asked.
“Mmm just like vegetable, maybe some chilies, eat with rice,” he said.
I told him I wanted to try it.
Cooking Durian Kutejensis
This is the first example in this story of how nice people in Malaysia are to tourists, very often. The man looked at his wristwatch, and then told me to buy one of the baskets of unripe durian.
The unripe chunks were hard and waxy. Out of curiosity, I took a nibble. The texture was strangely wet and rubbery, like a new cheese, with the slight bubblegum sweetness of the species.
It was not delicious.
Then I followed him to a small cafeteria at the backside of the market, facing the river.
We stopped at this little restaurant-in-the-wall, where apparently my guide had just finished his breakfast, and where the head chef agreed to cook up the durian local-style, in a dish that he called “masakan sayur buah pakan.”
It literally just means “that type of durian cooked like a vegetable.”
So I negotiated for a vegan version, like I would at any restaurant, sans fish sauce or shrimp paste.
VIDEO: Making Sayur Buah Pakan
Then I watched while he stir fried the hard durian chunks with bean sprouts and seasonings.
- Unripe Durio kutejensis pieces
- Bean sprouts
- Sesame Oil
- Some kind of meat broth
The pan was hot and full of bean sprouts when he reached for a ladle in another pot and dumped a few scoops over the stir fry.
I thought I’d explained veganism pretty well, but it’s common for people unfamiliar with the concept to not notice when staple ingredients include meat.
When he finished cooking, he plated it and turned to me, just beaming.
Then he refused to take any payment at all for cooking me this Saratok local specialty.
I asked to pack it away, bawa balik. It was still too early in the day for eating, especially something that needed some ethical consideration.
After thanking the head chef profusely and trading smiles, I did one more lap of the market and then walked the three blocks back to our hotel.
Just before checking out, I made my decision. I ate one small piece of the durian. It was soft and a bit pasty, but smoother and richer, denser and sweeter than a potato. It brought to mind the canned yams my grandpa used to like to eat, if they were seasoned with chilies and sesame oil.
I left the rest of the Durian Stir Fry in Saratok, along with some of the nicest people.
Where We Stayed
I don’t necessarily recommend this hotel, but it worked.
It was a large, old building on the corner, about 3 blocks from the morning market. The rooms were huge with high ceilings and big windows, so plenty of light, but run down.
The sink didn’t work. The furniture looked like it was taken from an elementary school garage sale. There was no wifi.
For Southeast Asia, this hotel was not atrocious. It’s not an experience so terrible you can entertain people at dinner with the details. That said, I would definitely not take my mother here. For 65RM per night with a couple of laid back friends, sure.
How to get to Saratok Market
The Saratok Market is located at the far end of town along the riverside. Get there before 9AM to see the majority of the goodies, or swing by Restaurant #10 to get some cham coffee-tea and durian stir fry. If you’re vegan, remember to specify about the meat-broth.
Use this map to navigate to the Saratok Market, or to other places of durian interest in Malaysia.