Banyuwangi is drawing the attention of durian hunters with strange, striped and beautiful red-fleshed durians.
The Fruit Festival the last weekend of March drew durian hunters from all over Indonesia, as well as a durian fanatic from Hungary and us, all hoping to snag something truly beautiful and delicious.
Banyuwangi is both a city and a small state on the far East Coast of Java. It’s a short ferry ride from Bali, and standing on a city street facing east, you’ll occasionally catch a glimpse of hazy mountains on Bali rising over the low storefronts.
It’s a dramatic landscape. Volcanoes erupt from the Western horizon, and they say something about this combination of sea air and sulfur is responsible for the unique, flashy durians.
Really, it’s about multi-generational breeding between three different species of durian. But more on that in a later post.
The fruit festival takes place in downtown, on the side streets around a municipal park. Kids play soccer in the field nearby and in the early morning joggers slowly circumambulate the festival grounds.
One whole street is dedicated to food, and music, and stuff you can buy. In the center are agricultural products – predominantly dragon fruits, flowers, and bananas, but I also spot a stall dedicated to hydroponic lettuce.
There isn’t much English, and until I meet Daniel (the Hungarian durian lover), we don’t spot any other foreigners in the crowd. It’s chaotic and crowded and I feel both lost and really visible.
In fact, I really had little idea what was going on for the first 15 minutes of the festival, except that it was very intense.
The Opening Ceremony
I’d gone for a walk around the festival early in the morning, before there were any people and many of the stalls were even set up.
When we returned together several hours later, the magnitude of the crowd took me by surprise. Then before I quite understood what was happening, one of the festival officials took me by the arm and pulled me through the crowd until I was staring at both a huge pile of durians (excellent) and what seemed to be a bazillion cameras set on continuous shooting (eek!).
I suddenly found myself trapped on the camera, instead of behind it.
Naturally, I froze until someone handed me a piece of orange durian.
Which happened about 10 seconds later.
I was really excited. These durians, which looked like normal kampung durians from the outside, held strange colors and patterns within. It was obviously not a normal piece of durian I held between my fingers.
I started trying to take a picture of it. Then I realized that I was still on camera, and I was now expected to consume the durian in a cheerful and ladylike way.
Have you ever had a dream where you suddenly find yourself giving a class presentation in your underwear?
My equivalent is eating durian on camera. Maybe this is a girl thing. Or my own durian-obsessive nightmare.
In any case, this is what the durian I successfully ate on camera looked like.
At least I nailed the cheerful part. It wasn’t hard to look ecstatic tasting one of Banyuwangi’s weird durians. It was so beautiful, a delicate marbling of pink and red and white. I’d never seen a durian like it before.
It was a little overripe, but in its sweetness and smoothness I could taste potential. I needed to taste more.
Then without explaining anything, I was pushed and nudged by smiling, celebrant officials into a melee that surrounded the agricultural displays.
It was crowded. So crowded I could barely move, and when I tripped and looked down for a moment, Rob was washed away in a people rip tide.
“He’s that way, there!” a grinning man yelled at me. But by the time I got there, he wasn’t anymore.
I didn’t find Rob again until about 30 minutes later, when the tide had subsided somewhat and we both naturally drifted to a durian stall. I arrived first, and decided to stay, figuring he’d look for me there.
Because at this point, looking for me and looking for durian is nearly the same thing.
Rainbow and Other Surprises
There were only two durian stalls open that morning, although several stalls started selling durian later in the evening.
Not surprisingly, the durian stalls were a madhouse as well. People climbed over tumbling piles of durians, picking them up and examining them. Others crouched directly behind the stalls and munched.
But I weaseled my way in close to examine the durians.
A few piles were labeled, but most were not.
Only one was labeled “Durian Pelangi” – the Rainbow durian.
From the outside, it looked like a normal kampung durian, slightly cracked and yellowed on the outside. The kind of durian I might normally decide to not to buy even if there weren’t other durians around, because it wouldn’t be worth the disappointment.
And that’s what made cracking the Rainbow durian open so exciting. Because instead of greyish-white, goopy, overripe durian flesh I saw this.
Isn’t it beautiful? The blush of pink against the white, marbled irregularly with patches of what would have been pure white if the durian wasn’t overripe.
Just the surprise, the contrast between my expectation and reality, made me smile.
They say that the element of surprise is a big part of what makes us laugh at jokes, and that a punchline will never be as funny as the first time you heard it. That may be part of what I love about opening durians in general, because every durian carries a surprise within it.
These Banyuwangi durians took that surprise to a whole new level.
Maybe if I stuck around Banyuwangi for a long time, I’d figure out what to expect when the durian was cracked open. This time around, every durian opened was a delight.
The only problem was that there weren’t enough durians. And they were crazy expensive.
I paid 150,000 IDR ($12 USD) for a single Rainbow durian that cost less than 1 kg, and that was after haggling the price down from 250,000 IDR.
There also weren’t any of the red durians I’d seen in photos. It wasn’t the right season.
Don’t plan your durian hunt around this festival.
Come earlier, like maybe February. That’s when you can see the really impressive durians, like the ones with red flesh, striations, marbling, strange colorful blotches and other eye candy.
This festival was fun, but not because there were heaps of amazing durians. There were a very few amazing durians, and a lot of pretty standard unnamed kampung durians.
If you’re going to be in Banyuwangi anyway, make sure to secure your Rainbow durians early in the day before they sell out. Then eagerly crack it open and see what colorful jewel you’ve found.
How To Get To Banyuwangi
The festival took place in Taman Blambangan, a park in the center of Banyuwangi.
The nearest airport is 20 km south of the downtown. It’s called Blimbingsari Airport (BWX) and is serviced by Garuda Airlines from Denpasar, Bali and Surabaya, Java.
From Bali, you’ll need to take the Gilimanuk-Ketapang ferry crossing. You can take a bus from Ubung Bus Terminal or rent a car and drive yourself. It takes about 4.5 hours.
I have often wondered why there is such wondrous colors inside a spiky green shell when the color can serve no purpose of attracting animals or insects. (Unfortunately most animals do not perceive colors unlike humans – so perhaps that is not a criteria – but flowers attract insects and other pollinators by color).
It turns out that the durian aril grows out of the sepals and petals of the flower, which is exposed and attracts bees and bats to pollinate. The color retains from the early stage, even as the fruit develops a solid shell.
Most of the colors are from beta- and alpha- carotenoid pigments, with a small fraction of lutein and zeaxanthin pigments. The high fat content of the pulp allows for good retention of these pigments.
I suspect evolutionarily the species developed its strong odors to attract the bats as pollinators.