December is nearly halfway gone! Not only is the end of the world coming, but the closing of our Year of the Durian. Eleven and a half months down the durian road, we’re winding down our adventures and patching up the missing links in our collection of durians and durians eaten.
Over the weekend we visited the Tenom Agriculture Park and Research Center, where we hoped to find a few more edible durian species and possibly get a taste of the elusive kura-kura durian, which we found in Kalimantan but didn’t get to taste as the fruits were immature. Our trip to Tenom was arranged by Tony Lamb, a retired botanist who masterminded the park project and was the person, twenty years ago, who went on jungle expeditions to collect rare wild fruits and other flora to plant in the park.
We had to race to get to Tenom in time, as we still were upriver in West Kalimantan. It took three days of solid busing to the Sarawak border and then north through Brunei, but it was totally worth it for Tenom’s durian treasures. We not only came into contact with two durians completely new to us, but were fortunate enough to finally taste durian kura-kura.
Tenom itself is a sleepy valley town set in the picturesque Crocker Mountains. There are a few small hotels, a market, and not much else other than the Agricultural Park, which is more than enough reason to go there. Combined, the park and the research station span a sprawling 1,500 acres, although only (only!) 200 acres are opened to the public. The park’s pride and joy is their native orchid collection, but Rob and I were more interested in their 8 acre fruit crops orchard. Things you can eat are always more interesting (in our opinion).
The orchard was a fascinating combination of strange shapes, exotic colors, and new explosions of flavor sensation. We tasted hairless green rambutans that tasted like grapes, velvet apples that looked like peaches but tasted like bubblegum, a nut larger than Rob’s over-sized head (we still can’t find a new sunhat for him!), and even an artocarpus relative that brought to life Willy Wonka’s Everlasting Gobstopper. When ripe, the sweet, fleshy appendages can be gently pulled free and devoured, releasing a mouthwatering sweet-tart cream. Durian obviously has some tropical competitors for both weirdness and deliciousness.
Not that we would ever abandon our lovely durian. As “durian researchers”, Rob and I were given a behind-the-scenes look at the research station. We were invited to stay on the station grounds, in a small house just behind the durian orchard. From the porch, we could look out on durio oxleyanus and durio graveolens.
Clarence Matthews, a fruit crops researcher, and Herbert Lim, a bee specialist who had been dragged to our aid, gave us a tour of the research fruit orchard and fed us a smorgasbord of durian species. It was such a treat to be able to see so many of the species we’ve spent the last two months hunting all together in one place! It was a beautiful collection. At one tasty durian snack, we enjoyed red, orange, yellow, and green
skinned fruits. We really did taste the rainbow!
Durian even goes beyond the rainbow. Mr. Frederick Chiu, a local durian farmer and hobbyist, shared with us a bright yellow durian with fantastic, Barbie-pink flesh. I think I fell in love the moment it was opened sheerly for that girly color. Hot pink looks awesome in any combination, even when paired with Big-Bird yellow.
Mr. Chiu discovered this durian years ago when he rescued the tree from being chopped down by loggers. He has named the variety “Tenom Beauty”, and believes it to be a natural hybrid of kampung durian and a wild, jungle species. Thick, smooth and creamy, it has an element of dark chocolate with an extremely mild durian aroma and flavor. While I prefer slightly stronger durians, I found this durian very pleasant especially when chilled, like a dark chocolate mousse.
I like all durians – in theory. After tasting so many durian species, it’s finally happened that we’ve come across a durian we don’t like; durio oxleyanus. It’s actually one of the most popular of the wild durians because of it’s mild to non-existant aroma and sweet flavor. I really liked the exterior, which was strikingly different than other species – a wild tangle of curving, rubbery green thorns. And when it popped open with a tiny prick of the knife, revealing swollen yellow pods, I was really excited. Then for the first time, neither Rob nor I could take more than a few bites of durian. The flavor was just too bizarre, like pouring 20 packs of pixie-stix in your coffee.
Maybe my taste buds are just out of wack, because I liked the dreaded kura-kura durian, the one so abhorred for it’s stench that the local tribes in West Kalimantan don’t even consider it edible. We did! While our guide grimaced and looked dumbfounded, Rob and I consumed the whole thing. There were only three fruits left on the small tree, so we were very lucky to find one ripe. While I liked it, there didn’t seem to be much durian-y about it. In texture it was more like a jackfruit, a bit rubbery yet juicy at the same time. The flavor was light and sweet, with almost a touch of vanilla. Later Tony described the flavor as caramel cream. I thought it was pleasant enough, and definitely not worth the dramatic gagging displayed by our guide.
Three new durians and a Willy Wonka fruit isn’t a bad haul for a durian expedition! And best yet, I was able to use the library at the research station. There I finally got my hands on Kostermann’s “Genus Durio Adans,” an archaic piece of research literature from the 1950’s that is still the most complete description of durian species. He describes all 27 species, of which it turns out that far more than nine are edible. So much for my goal of tasting all the edible durian species!
With durio testudinarum and durio oxleyanus added to our list, we’ve now tasted six species of durian, possibly seven or eight. Stopping by Tenom was definitely a great way to wrap up an unimaginably great two months in Borneo. But just because we’re taking a break from durian hunting doesn’t by any means mean that we’re through with durian.
We’ve compiled so much information and so many stories that we’ll be blogging about it for months, if not years. I don’t know if I will ever get the durian stench off of my hands, or out of my heart. What it does mean is that we are going gangbusters to squeeze in as many more awesome durians as we can before we go home – which is why we spent our very last day in Borneo hunting for one more obscure durian.