At last, at last, durians are beginning to fall in Borneo. The season, a few weeks later than usual, has started!
Sipitang is a small town on the southeastern coast of Sabah, very close to the border of Sarawak and Brunei. Most tourists pass through Sipitang on their way to Long Pasia, a village in the highlands that operates as a touristic display of the Lundayehs, the native people of the Sipitang region. There’s not much to see and do in Sipitang itself, unless you are a fruit freak, in which case you will be very happy. Durian, tarap (marang) and cempadak are listed on the Sabah Tourism website as things to enjoy in Sipitang, and we are definitely taking advantage of all the delicious fruit around. But the most exciting thing about Sipitang is the sheer variety of jungle durians being sold at the market, cracking open to reveal the bright yellow, orange, and even the lipstick red flesh!
Rob and I spent the weekend at the Kinabatangan River, waiting to hear back from the agriculture officials in Zamboanga to verify that the durian was really coming from the eastern side of Mindanao. While we waited, we got an email from a friend who had just arrived in Kota Kinabalu, saying that the durian was now coming from Sipitang. We were torn, as we were looking forward to the adventure of passing through the forbidden Sulu Archipelago on the way to Zamboanga and yet were eager to get our hands on some real, wild Borneo durian. Then I talked to Mr. Eduardo Hoyolohoy, the head of the Zamboanga Agricultural department, who told me that the durian shipped to Sandakan via Zamboanga was actually coming from Davao! No wonder the size of the flesh was absolutely enormous. Filippine durian are some of the heftiest of the durian varieties, clocking in at as much as 45% edible portion! (compare that to Monthong, at only 30%).
So Sipitang it was. We met up with our friend in Kota Kinabalu, and then took the train south to Beaufort. At only 4.80 RM each, this was definitely the cheapest and most comfortable way to go. The North Borneo Railway is the only rail line in Sabah, running from Kota Kinabalu to Tenom with a track change in Beaufort. Trains depart KK for Beaufort at 7:45 AM and 1:40 PM, and from Beaufort for Tenom at the same time. Since we weren’t interested in going to Tenom, and we hate getting up early, we took the later train. Note: we had no trouble with the train, but apparently other travelers have experienced significant delays or even canceled trains. You can call the Tanjung Aru station to confirm the trains are running on time: +60 882 54 611
We took a pit stop in Beaufort to gauge the durian scene. Beaufort is only 44 km north of Sipitang, so there was a chance it was already durian season there too. A small, quiet town with loads of good fruit, Rob and I were really tempted to stay a night or two and explore. There are two hotels for tourists passing to and from Tenom, but most people just make sure they get on the afternoon train. We didn’t see any fellow travelers (meaning white people) on the train or wandering Beaufort. The three of us caused much amusement among the townspeople, especially once we sat down and devoured several bundles of durian. After all, it was dinner time!
While a few durians were sourced from around Beaufort, most were coming from Sipitang, so onward we went. The bus picked us up, and one hour later we were in Sipitang. Breezy. When we passed a street named “Durian” we knew we were in the right place. I admit that none of us ate durian for breakfast the next day, although we were super psyched to see several different species of durian being sold at the local fruit market. There’s plenty of rambutan, stinky wanis, green skinned kuwini mangoes, and many fruits I’ve never seen before, but tarap rules the Sipitang market. I love this fruit. Seriously, if durian is the king, tarap is the queen. And we all know who’s in charge.
Despite my adulterous love affair with tarap, we managed to stay on the durian target. With all the jungle durians around, it was easy to be intrigued. There are several different species in various shades of green, neon yellow and dusky orange, all small, perfectly round, with sharp, densely clustered thorns. They’re preferred by the locals, who call them all “dalit” but say the bright yellow one is the best.
We also love the dalit durian. It’s a totally different experience than eating regular durian. The smell is totally different, a pungent bubblegum stink bomb. I had a jungle durian burp two days after eating it, that’s the strength of the odor. The flesh is very low water content, although in texture it varies between wax and cream cheese, depending on the species. For me the most satisfying part is consuming the brilliant, almost artificially bright hues of orange, red, yellow, and even magenta. It’s like nature’s M&M’s or Skiddles! I only wish we could buy more, but at 35 RM ($11.5) for a bundle of 3-4 tiny fruits, which yield almost no flesh, our budget and our stomachs demand more bang from our rinngit.
There were so many jungle durians in the market, selling for such a high price, that we felt certain someone must be growing them commercially. At times there seemed
to be more jungle durian that regular durian! The tricky part was
finding a durian farmer. There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to
when durians appeared and disappeared at the market, which they did constantly. Farmers or durian collectors dropped the durians off, and vendors from Kota Kinabalu, Labuan, and Brunei carted them off.
After snooping around for days displaying entirely too much interest in durian, we were invited to two farms. The manager of our hotel, the Dhiya Esplanade, kindly took us to his uncle’s farm nearby in Mesapol, about 10 km from Sipitang, where we marveled over 100 year old trees and several graveolen varieties with a creamy tiger orange flesh. The next day, we learned about the trials and tribulations of occupational durian farming from a Chinese farmer. He described how his family suffered waiting for the durian trees to mature enough to bear fruit, and now, twenty years later, his trees were infested with a mysterious leaf blight. He also had several graveolen trees, but had plans to replace them with Musang King. We send our thanks to Wan, the hotel manager, and our anonymous Chinese farmer for sharing numerous delicious durian and fantastic stories.
I couldn’t believe that the locals didn’t have names to distinguish between the different species, so I wandered over to the Department of Agriculture Extension office, conveniently located right across the street from the market. The main durian expert was out, but a kind English speaking man named Johnsil agreed to sit down with me and tell me a little about the local durian scene. Turns out that “dalit” is a broad category meaning all jungle durians, while each species has it’s own moniker. Johnsil estimated that there are 5-6 different species being sold at the market, including one that has purple flesh! He didn’t know any of the latin names, so I have little idea which durians are which. It’s a starting place, but I intend to find out which durians we have been enjoying.
Today we’re headed to Brunei, to meet with a man who is an expert in jungle durians. I’m sure he’ll have the answers we are looking for!