The fumes emanating from my pint glass filled the whole room with a strong, sweet, yeasty aroma that was unmistakably durian.
There was no way such an aroma would be tolerated in public places in Thailand. The aroma was like if the entirety of Singapore’s Geylang Street was trapped in a shoebox and left in the sun, and then the lid lifted for a whiff. It was delightful.
What is Durian Jun?
Jun is a fermented, probiotic drink similar but not the same as kombucha. It may be a recent relative of kombucha, or something else entirely. We don’t really know.
We also don’t really know where jun originated. Maybe China? Maybe Tibet? Who cares? Let’s get back to the present-day moment, because jun is delicious now.
Jun is made by adding a bacterial culture to a base of green tea and honey. The bacterial cultures that make kombucha can’t survive in honey (cane sugar is used) because honey is usually antimicrobial. The jun culture has adapted to feeding off honey, and the drink has a sweeter, richer, fuller mouthfeel and is less susceptible to turning sour than kombucha.
The drink is then flavored with herbs, spices, fruit juice, or in this case: pure Hawaiian-grown durian.
Note: Honey is an animal product, and is therefore not technically part of a vegan diet. Using technical labels I am a Beegan — a vegan that sometimes eats honey when the honey comes from ethical sources and the purchase and consumption of said honey does not contribute to colony collapse and the end of food production.
The Kava Bar in Pahoa
Durian Jun is the most popular drink at the La Hiki Ola Kava Bar in downtown Pahoa, the largest city in a district called Puna on the Big Island of Hawaii. In the photo above it’s the red building set back from the road.
Pahoa is scarcely a strip of an old sugar town. It’s quiet and quaint, and from the outside it looks like the kind of place you’d take your Grandma to on Sundays to look for crocheted blankets and things with cats drawn on them.
I would probably avoid taking my Grandma here.
It’s not that people in Puna aren’t fun, and friendly, and mind-bogglingly open minded. It’s just that, well, uh, take the bathroom for example:
My Grandma was born in 1924 in Texas.
Her word to describe this place would be, (long pause included) “Interesting.”
That is actually a fine word to describe the Puna district, a diverse region sometimes called the “Punaverse” because the rules that govern the rest of the world may or may not apply here.
Most people live off grid, tucked away off dirt roads with no running water or electricity, unless they supply it themselves. It’s a hodgepodge of intentional communities, yoga getaways, end-of-the-worlders, and members of society who have no intention of being anything but true to themselves, and allowing you be true to yourself too.
And so, I suppose it should come as no surprise that durian is popular, and when a durian drink unleashes fumes so strong I can’t imagine it being permitted in public places in Asia, nobody bats an eye.
What’s a Kava Bar?
In a recent New Yorker article on why Kava Bars are gaining in popularity, the author dryly observes:
There have never been so many healthful activities disguised as debauchery. Everywhere, it seems, New Yorkers are trying to have old-school fun by unconventional means. Kava is certainly part of this wave, and it seems to be successful.
That essentially sums up the Kava Bar phenomenon. They’re small, family-friendly pubs where grown-ups get together to imbibe in kava, kombucha, jun, and other supposedly non-alcoholic beverages that still have mood-altering (although I have my suspicions about the alcohol content of some kombuchas).
Kava bars are really popular in Hawaii, because kava is Hawaiian. It’s been part of the Hawaiian culture for thousands of years.
Kava is an ancient Hawaiian root that is pounded into powder and mixed with water. It tastes like slippery soap water, and makes your mouth feel tingly all over. It’s a relaxant without a hangover, but since it tastes like aforementioned soap, you might also desire something tasty.
Enter durian jun.
Making Good Durian Jun
Is it merely coincidence that the name of the man who inspired Durian Jun is DJ? Or is it the sweet logic of the Punaverse?
He happened to sit down at the bar while I was taking my first breathy sip of durian jun, inhaling that sweet funk through the sparkle of carbonation.
I congratulated him. “This really tastes like durian,” I said. I was not expecting it, at least not in America, made by Americans. I’ve had durian wine in Singapore that didn’t taste this much like durian.
He grinned. “That’s really our passion, making sure people taste the flavoring. We like to have the jun flavor too, but we like the flavors to be bold. It takes a lot more work.”
There were a lot of bold flavors listed on the menu.
He said his other favorite is Laughing Dog, flavored with a witch-like brew of Marshmallow Root, Licorice Root, Echinacea, Orange peel, Cinnamon bark, Fennel seed, and cloves.
To get the flavors right, they have to taste it frequently during the ferment. “Every hour hour is the difference between sweet and super tart,” he said.
I asked him how popular the durian jun is.
“Ridiculous. We can’t keep it in stock. We’ll go through a keg in 24 hours. We’ve got our durian people.”
Sometimes, he said, they keep the dregs where the durian flesh settles to the bottom of the keg, where it gets really thick and kind of grainy in texture, and sell it to the real fanatics.
They didn’t have any, or I would have bought some.
DJ himself was not really a fanatic until the owner of the Kava Bar forced him to taste a small, white-fleshed durian that we agree was probably a Hawaiian D132.
According to DJ, it tasted like pure butterscotch. “I was just blown away, and pretty much after that…” he trailed off.
Enter durian jun.
I finish my glass and order another for the road. It’s a complex drink, with the round, heavy perfume of fermented honey complementing the sulfurous sweetness of the durian, overlaid with tiny bubbles that make the flavor explode in my nasal cavities.
Right now Durian Jun and the other flavors are bottled and sold under the brand name “Naked Hippie Brew,” a name that my Grandmother would no doubt find (long pause) “Interesting.”
I wish they were more widely available. Right now, the only places you can find them are at the Kava Bar in Pahoa, a few health food stores around Hilo, and Arkansas. Really.
The durian jun is probably the best way I’ve tasted to consume durian other than eating it fresh. I’m lucky probably that it’s not more widely available, because at $5 per pint I might be in for financial problems if I could get my hands on it more often.
I savored my second glass all the way home, but by the time we got there, I drank it all.
How to Get to La Hiki Ola Kava Bar
The Kava Bar is a two-story red building set a little bit back from the main road running through Pahoa. It’s pretty hard to miss, unless you’ve already had too much kava.