Today is Black Friday in the U.S. and my brother and Dad are somewhere out in the throngs vying for the latest fashionable gizmo while I’m cuddled up writing this post. The men in my family are the shoppers, don’t ask me why.
Luckily, I’ve never had to line up for durian at 6 AM when it’s 20° F ( – 7 ° C). Malaysia’s climate is a little kinder to the gung-ho. But all the hype, branding and repetition of the word “black” has got me thinking about Black Thorn durians, the latest durian fad that’s selling for even more than Musang King.
Some headlines were even heralding Black Thorn’s hometown, Nibong Tebal as the “New Balik Pulau for durian lovers.”
I get hype. Its fun. And it’s fun to think that there’s something even tastier waiting in the world for you to try. It gives you something to look forward to, and a target to search out and acquire. But at a price tag of more than 50 RM per kilo, is Black Thorn worth it? Or will the anticipation and expectation bode an expensive let down?
I’ve been fortunate enough to taste Black Thorn on several occasions, including from the original farmer, Mr. Leow himself. Here’s everything I know about Black Thorn so you can go into the experience with realistic expectations.
Why is it called Black Thorn?
It’s a cool name, right? It calls to mind pirates and action movies and other bits of badassery. But the name makes about as much sense to me as the name Black Friday — cool marketing ploy with a few versions of the story, but none that are very satisfying.
Black Thorn is called Ocee (Black) in Chinese and Duri Hitam (Black Thorn) in Malay. The most logical story for the name is that this Black Thorn tends to have the dry, shriveled remnant of the flower stamen still attached to the bottom, which looks like a long, skinny black thorn (this person has a great picture).
This “thorn” is quite fragile and tends to break off during the fall or during transit, so it’s not that useful for identification purposes. But all Black Thorns have a darkish lump in the slightly concave center of the bottom where the stamen broke off.
Another version of the story posits that the tips of the durian’s thorns are dark brown or “black.” I’ve noted before that culture appears to influence how we perceive colors, but I don’t think that really excuses the clear lack of blackness on these durian thorns.
To my eyes, Black Thorn durians are grey-green and a round, bouncy shape. With their stubby stems, they look like cute little pumpkins.
And the inside, of course, is not black at all.
Where Black Thorn Comes From
In the fall of 2014, Rob and I used Black Thorn as an excuse to see mainland Penang and visit the original Black Thorn grower, Mr. Leow Cheok Kiang, on his farm in Nibong Tebal.
We were escorted to his farm by someone from the agricultural department, who acted as a translator because Mr. Leow does not speak English.
We sat under the shade of a shed and looked out on his tidy, well-maintained orchard with grass manicured to nearly golf-course standards. All the trees in the background are Black Thorn.
As you can tell from the picture, his land is gentle rolling flatland, not like Penang Island. He says that’s one of the great characteristics of Black Thorn: It tastes great whether or not it’s grown on a hillside.
Mr. Leow answered my questions simply and patiently. I couldn’t understand his words, but from his slow, measured tone I got the feeling that he thinks before he speaks and is also incredibly kind.
When we brought a Durian Tour group to his stall, I tested the sugar content of his cempedak with my Brix refractometer and discovered it was the highest of any fruit I had tested, ever. One side of his mouth twitched up, but the smile was mostly in his eyes.
|We’re all holding Black Thorns
The History of Black Thorn
Mr. Leow first discovered the tree at a friend’s house in Lima Kongsi, about 10 km north from his farm. His friend’s trees were taken from a seed of a durian eaten in Thailand, but no one knows which durian or where. The mother trees have since died.
In the 1980’s Mr. Leow took cuttings and transferred the trees to his farm. Unfortunately, when the trees eventually fruited they didn’t look or taste the same as his friend’s fruits. In fact, it wasn’t until the trees were a good 30 years old that Mr. Leow realized he had something special.
In 2011 he entered the durians in the annual Fruit Competition with the Penang State government. It won second prize. The next year it won first prize, at which point durian lovers started paying attention. I think my friend Huai Bin was one of the first to taste and report on Black Thorn.
I remember hearing about it when Rob and I were first bumming around Malaysia on the original Year of the Durian. There weren’t many around back then, and we wouldn’t have had the cash to buy one anyway.
When the durian won first prize again in 2013, and again in 2014, the media really started paying attention.
Black Thorn was approved for registration with the Malaysia Department of Agriculture this past summer (2015) under the registration code D200.
Black Thorn: It’s a thing.But is it a thing you want? ummmmm yes.
What Black Thorn Looks Like and Tastes Like
News sources keep quoting that a Black Thorn is 2-3 kg, but in my experience they’re usually a bit smaller than that, like 1.5-2 kg, and often even smaller (see our group photo).
Once opened, they often look like a rosier D24, with the same big, bulbous pods mounding high out of the shell. In my experience, there are often just two seeds per section. From looking at other people’s pictures eating Black Thorn, that seems like a legit observation.
The pods are are a creamy, salmon shade with a fine crosshatching of wrinkles. It’s softer, smoother, and aromatic. The closest comparison is probably Red Prawn, although Black Thorn is a bit firmer and sweeter.
Fruits from younger trees have a paler, pinker salmon complexion, but still graced with those fine, luxurious wrinkles.
This is the fruit from a 7-year-old tree grown on Bao Sheng’s Farm in Balik Pulau.
|Young tree Black Thorn
It is a beautiful durian. The skin is shiny where it’s stretched tight over a pillow cream, then gathered into those beautiful folds around the sides. However, it tasted sweet and fruity, with almost an artificial strawberry ice cream flavor.
Young tree Black Thorn
As the trees get older, the color of it’s fruits begins to deepen and becomes a luxurious autumn orange. The bulbous pods begin to deflate and become a little flatter, but interestingly the wrinkles don’t seem to get more pronounced.
Older Tree Black Thorn
Mr. Leow himself had warned me that Black Thorn is a durian that varies a lot in flavor depending on the age of the tree.
“If you want to eat good Ocee, you must eat it from a very mature tree,” he advised when we spoke at his farm. “The young tree won’t bear nice tasting durian.”
This is partly why it took him nearly 30 years to realize he had such a nice tasting durian.
|Older tree Black Thorn
It’s hard for me to remember this particular durian now, but I remember that I loved it. Maybe it’s worth the price after all, I remember thinking. This tiny durian cost over 60 RM (at the time about $20 USD, although the Malaysian Ringgit has dropped considerably since then).
I remember that it was nearly fiberless, and that the thin wrinkled skin was so delicate that even a gentle touch ruptured it and sent the marshmallow-smooth flesh spurting onto our fingers and mellow wine aroma into our nostrils.
I ranked it among the Top 10 of 2014, but I haven’t had a Black Thorn as good as this one since. And I think I know why
The problem with Black Thorn is that because it’s newly popular, there are a lot of fruits from very young trees flooding the market.
Black Thorn really is a lot like Red Prawn in the most important way: when the tree is young, the both fruits are really sweet, which is just fine if strawberry and cream lozenges are your thing.
Out of our group of 10, during the 8 days we spent eating durian, only one person ranked Black Thorn as his favorite. That was the guy who claimed to prefer Thai durian to Malaysian.
Old tree Black Thorns are so rare that even when we visited Nibong Tebal, our group only tasted durians from trees maximum 15-20 years old, and most were younger. I have never tasted a really old Black Thorn, so I’m holding out.
I think that it might just be worth the hype; but in 10 or 20 years from now. It’s not exactly the instant gratification promised us by hype and Black Friday 20%-off sales (get it now!), but that’s partly why I like durians.
Anybody planting durians is in it for the long game. We durian eaters have to think that way too.