For the first time in sixty years, Penang had a second durian season this November-December. How lucky are we? We visited Penang last June and were really impressed with the durian, particularly Bao Sheng’s numbingly delicious Red Prawn, which stuck in our minds as possibly the very best durian of the year.
Five countries later, we wondered if that Red Prawn could really hold up to a fresh Musang King, a creamy Filipino Arancillo, or one of those fantastic kampung durians in the mountains of Vietnam. Or what about all the various species of durian? Could the very best zibethinus even hold candle to those sticky, cheesy, peanut-buttery orange graveolens? We had to cut our plans in Borneo a little short to find out, as the Penang season closed on December 15th. What better way to finish a year of durian?
The last time we visited Bao Sheng’s Durian Farm, for my Durian Birthday Party, we didn’t stay the night in the Durian Villas. With so much ground still to cover, we were feeling too budget-tight to splash out for a fancy durian retreat. This time, we were broken in from Borneo’s elevated prices and figured, what the hell. We deserve a durian vacation.
We stayed three nights in Mr. Chang’s cheapest accommodation, an A-frame, open bungalow with a sweeping view of the durian-covered mountain and the ocean far below. A sweet sea breeze blew through the night and early morning, so that we slept peacefully and awoke with clean lungs, a blessing in an otherwise polluted year. The bungalow was perfect for us, as we love sleeping outdoors, but for those who want to feel like they’re on a proper, pampered retreat, Mr. Chang offers two Bali-style cabinas with a pool, as well as a private residence for larger groups, also with a private pool.
Those who stay on the farm have the option of purchasing a 24-hour all-you-can-eat package. The idea is that this gives enough time for Mr. Chang to give three one-on-one durian education sessions to explain the three levels of durian appreciation. His focus is on helping people to understand the subtleties of durian
flavor and aroma, how to get past the variety names, and more
importantly, how to appreciate a good durian.
His farm is a bit remote, so if you want to eat something besides fruit you either need to bring some food with you or arrange your own transport to Balik Pulau. There is a small fruit stand on the main road with coconuts, mangosteen, rambutans, and a sometimes bananas, so you don’t have to only eat durian, but Bao Sheng’s durian is so good why not indulge? Rob and I ate only durian for the duration of our stay.
Since it’s the very end of the season, not many durians were falling and it was slim pickings. Mr. Chang actually told us that there were no good durians now. “Well, is still good if you don’t compare,” he admitted. Holding up three fingers, Mr. Chang explained there are three categories of durian that peak at three different periods: first come the red-fleshed durians like Kun Poh and Ang Jin, followed by the yellow, sticky durians like Hor Lor and D604, and finally Red Prawn. On either side of each peak is a low season where the fruit is not quite as good. Well, is still good if you don’t compare.
The important thing to note is that one particular variety of durian is not always the best – including the famous Red Prawn. For example, an Ang Jin in the beginning of the season will taste much better than an early Red Prawn. There are two other factors to take into consideration as well: the age of the tree, and the freshness. A Red Prawn from a young tree will not be as good as a Kun Poh from an old tree, and a fresh anything is better than a 12-hour old Red Prawn.
Getting people away from brand names and variety labels is a key part of Mr. Chang’s education program, and was an eye opener for us. We already understood that fresh was better, and old tree fruit was better, but we hadn’t tied it all together with so many subtleties to understand just how to get a truly amazing tasting fruit. And we did get some incredible, miraculously good durian, so good that we completely forgot our fears about orange graveolens or Musang King.
Red Prawn was again a winner, a smooth, silky vanilla-chocolate ice cream swirl encased in a delicate waxy skin. It had been so long since we had tasted hybrid durians, eating mostly wild or kampung durians in Borneo, that I was completely overwhelmed by the sheer bulkiness, the immense flesh-to-seed ratio, and could only handle a few pieces of this durian heaven. I love the cool, fresh tingle of a good durian spreading across my tongue, coating the roof of my mouth and gums in a wonderful chocolatey film that induces me to lick my lips again and again and again.
Yes, Red Prawn is still one of the best durians in the world. But, this time it was Green Skin that really caught our attention. We weren’t familiar with the Green Skin, a large, blocky durian with a beautiful daffodil yellow interior and cavernous wrinkles. The numbing effect was stronger in this durian, as was the deep rich dark chocolate flavor highlighted with hints of kalua. We tasted this durian within one hour of it’s falling, from an old tree, with a strong smell – and wow, Durian Seng was right!
After three days of relaxing and enjoying the mountain air, the fantastic durians, the fascinating durian lectures, and Mr. Chang’s wonderful company, it was time to move on to Kuala Lumpur, our last destination in Malaysia. I know, I’m sad too! We’ll definitely be hitting up all our old favorite spots – Jalan Alor, SS2, and Chow Kit – and hopefully finding a few new ones. We’re not going to be looking for any particular variety, but for the freshest, strongest smelling durian. Will that be Musang King?
To schedule your own durian retreat, go to the Bao Sheng Durian website or call Mr. Chang at 012-411 0600 or 012-401 0800.