I’m lucky in durian. I’ve had more delicious durian than I honestly feel I deserve. But I still haven’t tasted even close to all of them. Compared to Penang, I haven’t spent as much time or digestive energy in southern Malaysia and I was excited to taste some new varieties there.
So I was doubly lucky that Glenn and his fiance (now wife!) met me in Johor Bahru last August for a lighthearted lunch at their favorite durian stall where they made sure I tasted the famed Golden Phoenix and D13.
From Singapore to Johor Bahru
I was on my way north from Singapore, and since I had to pass through Johor Bahru (JB) anyway, I had time to stop and revisit a city that I definitely had mixed feelings about the last time we came through.
From Singapore it’s easy to get local public transit to Johor Bahru. Several public buses make the journey, and apparently there’s now a train that goes too.
Public transit is cheap — it cost me $4.30 SGD for two buses to JB Sentral. The downside is that you have to get off the bus, get your passport stamped, and wait for a new bus at BOTH the Singapore and Malaysia checkpoints. This can be quite time consuming. If you have money but not time, you might want to consider a taxi. Years ago, when Rob and I took a taxi, we didn’t even have to get out of the car.
From JB Sentral I took a taxi to the KSL City Mall that cost me 9 RM, or about $2 USD.
Glenn and Candy met me at the mall. I threw my bags in their tiny car, not knowing where we were headed. We motored about a hundred meters from the mall and then pulled into a parking lot.
We were at Ah Tong’s Durian Stall.
Sunday At Ah Tong’s Durian Stall
It was in the middle of the day, and despite the haze of clouds it was really broiling. It was almost too hot to eat durian, even for me. That barely ever happens. Yet the stall was crowded with other Sunday durian brunchers.
I followed Candy through the tent in front, towards a small shop in the rear. As we passed a table, someone said “Year of the Durian.”
Happy Sunday Durian Brunchers
I turned around, totally surprised. Writing this odd little niche blog does not normally make me a recognizable public figure, even at durian stalls. I felt a momentary thrill–Oh yeah, I do do that cool thing– followed almost simultaneously by a crushing self-consciousness
I took their picture, both to remember the moment and also so they could see themselves on this website. Assuming they’re still reading.
JB Red Prawn
There’s some debate among the durian serious about whether a Red Prawn eaten anywhere but Penang is any good. Some say outside of Penang, the weather isn’t quite right. There isn’t a sea breeze, or the trees aren’t old enough, or maybe the soil is wrong.
Glenn proclaimed a JB Red Prawn as his favorite durian. He ordered two, right off the bat, to get us going.
“We’ll get more,” he winked.
One of Ah Tong’s helpers set down two Red Prawns; one from an old tree, and one from a younger tree. I could immediately tell the difference.
The young tree Red Prawn had a brighter orange-pink hue and smooth, firmer looking flesh. As I expected, it had a strong fruity and sweet flavor.
The old tree Red Prawn was wrinkled, with the pearly-grey blush that seems to come with age. The wrinkles weren’t as fine as those you’ll find in Penang, but the trees in JB can’t be more than 20 or 30 years old whereas in Penang they top 60 years.
Ah Tong served us the next round, jokingly doing a double-take when he saw me.
“From behind I thought you were a Chinese girl!” he teased. We all laughed, knowing that with hair like mine that was impossible.
Ah Tong said he would be happy to send his durians to the U.S.A. I said I’d be happy to buy his durians in the U.S.A. If anyone has an interest in facilitating this, Ah Tong’s contact info is at the end of this post.
Next was a D13, which I hadn’t tasted in many years. It looked beautiful, with a bright orange gleam shadowed by dark blue black bruises.
A bit of the pale inner cream had spilled over the skin, making it look irresistibly delicious.
It was a little watery and sloppy soft, with a one-dimensional sweet taste. It seemed a little overripe to me.
Glenn said it was a fairly lackluster D13, both because it was overripe and because the fruit was from a younger tree. The older D13’s, he said, would have a grey colored shell.
This was the durian I was most excited to taste. I could hardly believe that I’ve been eating durian in Malaysia for four years now and had yet to try one of the newest clones, D198, or Golden Phoenix.
Golden Phoenix was originally discovered in Johor, and is now one of the most popular durians in Singapore.
After the D13, it didn’t look nearly as pretty. It’s a pale, waxy-colored durian with fat, viscous skin and sticky, slightly fibrous texture. Those of you into chicken-skins would be into this.
The seeds were just as tiny as everyone online promised, but that’s never been a desirable durian feature to me. I’m all about flavor.
What caught my nose was it’s aroma, which was exceedingly herby and flowery. I took a bite, and instantly thought of the German chamomile I grew once in my yard as an early teenager, when my heart was set on becoming an herbalist. It was a unique tasting durian that left me eager to try another. Do all Golden Phoenix’s taste like that?
I didn’t get to find out. Since it was so late in the season (August 2), pickings were slim and there were no more to be tasted.
Last, but not at all least, we finished with a Musang King. This turned out to be my favorite for the afternoon.
I’ve felt before that Musang King is over-hyped. I don’t often buy it (this blog doesn’t make that much money), but this year I had some rare opportunities to taste it repeatedly and almost every time I was impressed.
When somebody else is buying, man, Musang King is just a solidly good durian.
All my best durian experiences so far have been with knowledgeable, fun and durian-loving locals who know which places to frequent and what kinds of durian to ask for. My visit to Ah Tong’s was no exception.
Ah Tong’s is easy to get to in downtown Johor Bahru, very close to the Singapore border. If you’re in Singapore and want to find some cheaper durians, Ah Tong’s is a good choice. I recommend that you try the Golden Phoenix and tell me, do you taste chamomile?
Getting to Ah Tong’s Stall
Ah Tong’s is located so close to the KSL City Mall someone who proficient at throwing things could hit the side of the building with a durian seed. Not that I recommend trying.
Ah Tong’s Stall
28 Jalan Serigala,
Ah Tong’s Facebook Page