The bus from Ranau dropped Jess and me off at Medan Selera, a small food court in Kota Kinabatangan on the east coast of Sabah.
We were on our way to the Kinabatangan Nature Lodge, to see orangutans and elephants and all the beautiful wildlife that people come to Borneo to see.
But we immediately asked for Durian Merah, the red durian famous in all the news reports about the area. The Nature Lodge Staff was shocked that Westerners had heard of their durian – and wanted it – but after exchanging giggles and grins one of the girls invited us to hop in her car and head to the local market.
That’s where we found Sabah Tempoyak, a unique side dish made exclusively out of red durian.
Sabah Tempoyak is not, strictly speaking, tempoyak, because it’s not cultured.
Tempoyak any where else is a fermented product made out of the normal white durian (D. zibethinus) that’s left to sour for 3-8 days and served with salt, chilies, and sometimes dried shrimp.
Depending on the age of fermentation, I quite like it.
As we wandered up to the covered seating area at Medan Selera, a man wearing a loose purple shirt and a white Islamic cap met us with a smile
“Welcome, welcome! You are with the Nature Lodge?”
Yes, we were. That’s what tourists do in the Kinabatangan – they come to see the orangutans and proboscis monkeys squished in the corridor of wilderness between the river and oil palm plantations. Who visits Borneo and doesn’t want to see monkeys?
The man, whose name was Hilir, invited us to sit down for lunch. That’s when we started talking about durian. Within minutes, he had whisked out a small dish of normal tempoyak for us to try.
It was creamy and delicately sour, only three days old, and still a little bit sweet. A sprinkling of large salt crystals gave it an extra zing. We gobbled it up as dip for some lettuce I had in my bag as a snack (yup, I bring lettuce on road trips!).
It was fun sharing this traditional Malaysian durian dish with Jess, but we weren’t quite satisfied.
What we really wanted was red durian. We didn’t yet know about it’s role in local cuisine.
Durian Merah – The Red Durian
The Kinabatangan area specializes in a type of Durio graveolens with red flesh, locally known as Alau. It’s so popular that in 2011 the government decided to sponsor the first Red Durian orchard in the area in an attempt at commercializing a wild fruit that is normally gathered in the jungle.
It’s a real delicacy, in part because no one grows it and the fruits are so small, but also because unlike most durians Alau doesn’t fall to the ground.
When ripe, slits form on the seams and the fruit cracks open still attached to the tree, dropping seeds and flesh to the ground. The only way to get the full fruit is to pick it at the perfect moment when it’s just starting to open but is still intact.
Since the trees can grow at least one hundred feet high, getting enough of the fruit to make any kind of dish takes considerable effort and man power.
Which is probably why, when we found Sabah Tempoyak at the Kota Kinabatangan Market, it was surprisingly expensive.
Kota Kinabatangan Market
We still had time to kill before our tour bus arrived, so I started talking with some of the other staff of the food court about the red durian.
“You want me to take you to the market?” asked a pretty girl whose round faced peaked out of her orange head scarf.
Umm yes, definitely!
The Kota Kinabatangan Market is about 2 km away from Medan Selera, so we left our bags with our new friend Hilir and hopped into a tiny hatchback car with the girl and another woman. It’s always fun to go somewhere with a local!
The huge parking lot stretching around the market was full of vendors setting out tables and shaking out umbrellas for the Friday evening tamu, the start to what looked like a sizable weekend market.
We hopped out of the car, scoping for durian. We saw nothing.
The women running the fruit and vegetable stands looked up in surprise, laughing and talking. Then they grinned at us and began posing for pictures. Iguess the buses going to and from the river don’t normally stop here.
But there was no durian. None. Zero. Zippo.
Which was strange, because earlier that morning we’d feasted at the Ranau market, which was piled so high with durian it was difficult to walk the narrow aisles between vendors.
Maybe we would have found some Ranau durians at the Weekend Market, but maybe not. Durian was definitely not in season here.
After a minute, our guide took me by the elbow and led us straight to the Sabah Tempoyak, which she held aloft triumphantly.
I was surprised, and then fascinated. What was this? It looked like tempoyak, but I had never heard of anyone fermenting red durians. There’s so little sugar in a red durian, I’m not certain fermenting would even work.
Whatever it was, it was all over the market, stacked between the vegetables and herbs.
I picked up one of the plastic containers, which felt greasy in my fingers.
“Sabah Tempoyak,” the woman explained, smiling. Using bits of my Malay (Tidak Ikan?) and several other women’s English, we established that this dish was completely vegan, no dried shrimps included.
Whereas normal tempoyak is preserved via fermentation, Sabah Tempoyak is preserved with oil and salt. It typically contains onions and chilies and can be kept outside of refrigeration for several months.
It looked beautiful, and pretty weird, so despite my dislike of oily things I bought one container. It cost 20 RM, about double the cost of a similar amount of normal tempoyak.
But then, that might have been a tourist price, I’m not certain.
I didn’t taste it right then and there because we had to hurry back to the food court, where as soon as we popped out of the tiny hatchback the bus pulled up and we joined the melee of other tourists with binoculars, cameras, and hiking boots heading to the Kinabatangan River.
I actually didn’t taste it until the next day, when I whipped it out while waiting for the bus back to Kota Kinabalu.
The greasy film of orange oil was an immediate turn off, but I tried to keep an open mind. You guys know I love durian. I stuck my pinkie finger into the mix and popped it in my mouth.
I hate this. My face pinched and I quickly reached for my water bottle. It was like if my dog ate anchovies and then gave me french kisses. For the entire ride back to Kota Kinabalu. I could barely believe it was vegan (spoiler: it may not have been. And as a funny aside, I wrote this paragraph BEFORE Aljun sent me the recipe).
The flavor stayed with me for hours. I was not thrilled. But obviously other people really like it, and it was all over the market, so instead of throwing the red goo in the bin I took it back to Thailand to share with Rob (who only said interesting), and sent the rest of it to my friend Mark from Migrationology who has a properly refined omnivorous palette and can be a better judge of flavor.
I’ll be curious to see what he has to say about it.
If you ever come across a large supply of Durio graveolens, here’s how you can make your own Sabah Tempoyak. Just don’t send any to me.
This recipe was sent to me by our wonderful guide Aljun at the Kinabatangan Nature Lodge, who planted two seeds from this pink durian on the lodge property. Check back in 10 years and maybe there will be fruit!
*Amounts depend on the amount of the durians you want to cook
- 1 tbsp spoon sugar
- 1 tbsp spoon of anchovies (in this vegan’s humble opinion, would taste better without this)
- 3 tbsp spoon vegetable oil
- 1 onion chopped
- 7 thinly sliced bird’s eye chillies or dried chili
- 4 stalks garlic sliced thinly
- 6 shallots sliced thinly
- a bowl of durians (without the seeds)
1) Stir-fry the garlic and onion and then add in bird’s eye chillies or dried chili (or both) followed by anchovies.
2) As soon as those ingredients look well-fried, add in the durians. Add some sugar and salt according to your taste (or how long you want to preserve it).
Malaysia Durian Map
Find more cool durian hot spots around Malaysia! Just click on of the pins to find another durian post just like this one about another durian locale you can visit and eat 😃