Rob sometimes worries that I’m addicted to newness. What I have is an incessant curiosity that makes me want to explore a new city, find a new durian stall, and taste a new durian.
But sometimes I get curious about the places I’ve already been. There’s something really enjoyable about returning to a place you’ve been before, particularly a place you liked.What is it like now? What am I like now? Will it still look and feel the same to me as it did before?
So when Rob and I passed through Kuala Lumpur a few weeks ago, rather than seek out a new durian venue I suggested we go back to Chow Kit Market.
After all, Chow Kit Market was where we started all these durian shenanigans.
It’s not really a tourist attraction, although it probably should be. The market stretches for several hundred meters along Jalan Chow Kit, a jumble of produce and people and strange smells.
Here sticky rice steams in bamboo shoots between decapitated chicken swinging nauseatingly from strings. Native fruits like cempedak, longans and durian mix with imported oranges and apples.
It’s the Malaysian multicultural chaos condensed into a market named for a Chinese miner and located in an Indonesian and African neighborhood, with an edginess that comes from being located in one of KL’s many red light districts.
The market is nearly always open, but it’s bustling charm is best in the evening – coincidentally, the best time for a durian feed.
The First Durian
In January of 2012, Rob and I arrived in Kuala Lumpur on a mission to eat our first fresh durian of our yearlong project.
We’d been in Malaysia all of four hours and were hungry, eagerly anticipating our first bite of luscious bitter-sweetness.
We picked Chow Kit because it was closer to Chinatown than the more famous SS2 Durian Stalls, and we’d heard that durian sold for a reasonable price there.
After dropping our bags off at a cheap guesthouse in Chinatown we
ignored the durian truck perpetually stationed there (that took some
will power) and made the long walk to Chow Kit Market.
It’s a long walk and at the wrong time of day can feel like a stroll through a shimmering urban desert. But in the evening when we first went out, it was magical.
|Men praying outside of Masjid Jamek|
We passed a mosque surrounded by hundreds of men sitting on the ground in rows, synchronously rocking left and right in the ritualistic dance that is their prayer.
We walked through a crowded clothing bazaar blasting Indian pop music sporting colorful saris and kurtis and gauzy scarves.
Even now it’s a bit much to take in. Back then, bleary from the long flight and totally new to Malaysia, it was overwhelming.
Overwhelmingly awesome. But I didn’t write about any of it, because we hadn’t started this blog yet. (You can start from the beginning here)
|Coconut sellers at Chow Kit Market|
I barely even have pictures of our first Malaysian durian.
There were six or seven stalls set up with tables and chairs. Most had a similar assortment of durian varieties, but we hadn’t heard of any of them. We didn’t know where to go or what to choose. After bouncing back and forth and comparing prices, we finally settled on a small stall toward the end of the market.
One durian in particular stood out to me: D88.
It had white, pillow-like flesh with a delicate tracing of grey wrinkles that fascinated me. It was the best durian I’d ever had.
I’ve never tasted a D88 since.
The next time we returned to Chow Kit Market, it was during Ramadan. A huge Ramadan market was set up along the street where the wet market usually was.
The fruit and vegetable stalls were overrun by long rows of red tents selling all kinds of snacks for fasters to enjoy. There were colorful juices and loads of sugar cane, jellies dyed according to a neon rainbow as well as everything you could think of to fry.
|Durian stall squeezed behind popular Ramadan food|
Even though it was peak season, most of the durian stalls had been swallowed by the Ramadan festivities. Of the six or seven durian stalls normally at the market, we only found one nestled behind a stand grilling meat and a table covered in sweet donuts.
The only durian they were selling were plump, unusually bitter D24. Even with the smoke from the grill blowing in our faces, it was still tasty.
Going Back to Chow Kit
I was both excited and nervous to return to Chow Kit this year. You know how it is when there is a place that’s really special to you, and you’re worried that it might not live up to your memories?
Back then, the chaos and crowds of a good wet market was novel. Now, I’ve been to Asian wet markets in 12 countries. What if Chow Kit was boring?
Worse, what if I’d become too much of a durian snob to enjoy the durians?
In the spirit of nostalgia, we left our hotel in
Chinatown, said hello to Emile at the durian truck, and walked to Chow
The walk was just as full of eye candy as I remember. It was early evening on a Sunday, and it seemed like everyone was out in the street.
We walked past the clothes shop selling heavily embroidered hijabs, the Indian restaurants spilling oily aromas onto the street. There were so many sate and cendol food carts out it reminded of Ramadan, which had finished several weeks before. It was like a carnival.
The market itself had changed little. It seemed like the arrangement of some of the fruit shops was different, and that many had moved out of the small, dark, cramped building and onto the street.
But the durian stalls were still there. And more importantly, THE durian stall was still there.
Everything was the same. The dingy grey plastic table. The bright blue chairs. The closed metal garage door. The strange lighting from the blue tarp overhead. The old woman and man serving durian with their son.
But the durians were different. Instead of D88, they had a selection of kampungs, D24, and Red Prawn.
I’ve never been good at choosing between good things – so this time, we got them all.
|“Laughing” kampung durian|
We started with the kampung for 8 RM per kilo ($2.50 USD), a seedy, bitter little thing with flesh so thin the seeds were visible – what durian enthusiasts call a “laughing durian.”
But do you see that nice black spot? If it had been more fresh, it might have been numbing.
As it was, it was a little watery and thin, but had a great flavor.
Next we tried the Red Prawn.
Red Prawn grown anywhere but Penang tastes pretty different. This one was thick and sweet,and that color was pretty amazing, even with the weird blue lighting from the tarp.
It was one of the first Red Prawns we’ve had that actually looked kind of reddish.
By far the best durian of the night was D24. It was a pretty golden cream, and tasted like caramel and milk chocolate.
Both the Red Prawn and the D24 cost 15 RM per kilo, but when I sweetly asked if there was a discount for durian-loving ang mohs, the vendor dropped the price to 13 RM per kilo ($4.07 USD). It was a little expensive, but much better than Chinatown prices.
We left sated and happy, another great evening out at Chow Kit Market. I’ll be looking forward to going back again.
How To Get To Chow Kit Market
Chow Kit Market is located along Jalan Raja Alang in a neighborhood called by the same name in downtown Kuala Lumpur.
From Chinatown, it takes about 40 minutes to walk there, plus stops to take in the sights. If you don’t feel like walking you can take the KL monorail to Chow Kit Station and walk from there, or use KL’s extensive MyRapid public bus system.
From Chinatown take bus number U33 from Masjid Jamek and get off at the Masjid Kampung Baru stop, which will drop you off at the back of the market.
To get back, walk to the Shell Station at the front of the market. It’s a one-way street and all buses go to Chinatown.