Yesterday Rob and I celebrated the halfway point of the Year of the Durian adventure. We can’t believe how quickly the time has passed! After six months in Asia, we’ve gotten accustomed to being unable to read street signs or understand people. Since people don’t understand us, I sometimes say things to Rob that might be considered rude. Stuff that an innocently obtuse child might say, like “Rob, look at that guy’s nose.”
Penang is a major destination for food tourism. In addition to durian (or with the exception of durian), foodies enjoy the vast congregation of ethnic foods. The large Chinese, Indian, and Muslim populations add to the diversity of culinary choices. The most famous venues are the street carts, which are said to be the highest quality street carts in the world, if that isn’t an oxymoron. Rob and I don’t eat most of what is on offer, but we do have a good time sampling the local fruit selection and occasionally hitting up the steamed vegetable cart. Yes, there is a non-oily, whole food, vegan street cart!
The people of Penang are funny about food. I always think of Parisians as being food snobs, but locals here are just as proud of their island’s cuisine. “I recently returned from China,” one lady at a durian stall told me,
“and the food was lousy.” At another durian stall, the vendor complained, “Last month I went to Kuala Lumpur and the food was so bad I
couldn’t even finish my bowl of wan tan mee.” She gestured, showing me the tiny size of the bowl to emphasize that the soup was inedible.
This discerning taste extends to durian. Like fine wine enthusiasts, Penang durian afficionados appreciate age. No one wants to eat old durian, but they do have a preference for old trees. Fruits from the oldest trees are thought to be more pungent and creamy than young trees. Fruit from trees older than 40 years are considered the best. People with especially sophisticated taste disdain eating fruit from young trees, explaining that the shiny and taught flesh indicates the texture will be cake-y or doughy (like Thai durian).
|Wrinkly flesh is a good thing
There are many high end venues around Georgetown to taste the best of the best durians. Rob and I visited one at the festival area New Park. Popular varieties for the well-to-do are Hor Lor, Lipan, Green Skin and of course, Ang Hae, also known as Red Prawn. We were disappointed to discover that Red Prawn isn’t actually red. It’s a dark yellow tinted with orange, bordering on pale salmon. Supposedly it got its name because the curved, pinkish flesh looks like the sea creature. The most expensive durian is the Musang King, also known as Raja Kunyit or Mao Shan Wang. Musang King is the most famous Malaysian durian right now, a new hybrid that costs a whopping 30 RM/kilo. Vendors tell me it is popular among the Chinese, to whom status is important.
I enjoyed reading the descriptions of the durians. “Sweet, sticky, bittersweet, creamy,” read most of the informational pages. “White flesh, bittersweet, sticky, with a special smell,” read the one for Kapili. Don’t all durian have a special smell? I asked Rob. That settled it – we tried a Kapili and a Kun Poh. I didn’t notice anything special about the Kapili, except for its price. At 18 RM, or $6, for a small box, it’s our most expensive durian so far. (I can tell I’m going to be repeating this line during our stay in Penang!) We were impressed with the Kun Poh, which had a curiously flowery fragrance mixed with coffee.
|Rob at the morning wet market
As fun as it is to try the different varieties, sometimes we like to actually eat durian, as opposed to just sample. Maybe if we were some Chinese business tycoons we wouldn’t mind shelling out for the big names at each meal, but we’re not. For those of us with a durian appetite and thin wallets, the time to get durian is the morning. You can usually find some cheap durian at the morning wet market, but your best bet is the durian truck on Love Lane, right off Lebuh Chulia. The truck arrives each morning around 10 AM, when is immediately swarmed by locals and durian tourists in the know.
|The durian truck arrives!
These durians are unnamed and uncared for. Unlike the top grade durians, which are tied to trees or caught in nets, they are allowed to plop onto the ground, destroying their texture (so they say). It’s a gamble whether or not the durian will be good, and the customers carefully comb through the pile before selecting their purchase. But the price is right, which makes the gamble worth it. The “durian boss” examines each durian for worm holes and other damage before proposing a price: 2-3 RM for a small one, 5-6 for a medium one, and 8-10 for a large one, depending on the quality.
|The Durian Boss
We were surprised to meet two other durian-fanatics at the truck. Arndt is a durian tourist from Germany, who polishes off three or four durians each morning. Rick is a South African who has lived in Penang for 7 years, and since discovering the durian fruit 3 years ago, has eaten two or three every day. They come every morning when the truck arrives, and we enjoyed meeting them and eating durian together. Durian for breakfast reminds me of eating pancakes on Saturday mornings! Funnily enough, they are also raw foodies. I guess durian attracts the raw foodists! We were interested to learn that Arndt was influenced by the Burger community in France, and includes some raw meat in his diet. We keep meeting people who follow a Burger-style diet, although every time I giggle to myself that a raw food guru is named Burger (heehee, Burger!).
|Arndt choosing a durian
The raw foodies aren’t the only regulars at the durian truck. We see many of the same locals every day. They think we’re funny, and enjoy helping us select a good fruit. One day the durian truck was late. When he finally showed up, a Chinese lady we see every day complained to me that since he was late, she had gone and purchased more expensive durian from someone else, and they had been no good. “I don’t know why he is late today,” she wondered plaintively.
|Hungry people crowd the stall in front of Gama Supermarket
It’s fun gambling on durian, but sometimes I want to know that I’m getting good quality without paying an arm and a leg. The durian stall in front of Gama Supermarket seems to be a happy middle ground. There I can choose between all of the popular varieties, while only paying 8-12 RM a packet ($3)! We purchased a box of Kun Poh here for 8 RM, to see if the cheaper version was as tasty. The extra 10 RM didn’t seem to have improved it, and we were again impressed. Our favorite so far is Little Red, an amazingly thick, sticky durian with flesh that, while not red, is more red than Red Prawn.