“Let’s meet at 10:30 at the Sibu Market,” his text said.
I know a coffee date is the normal way to catch up with friends, but when your friends are all durian and fruit fanatics, the biggest outdoor market in all of Malaysia is really the only place that made sense for #teamdurian to meet up with our friend-in-durian, Timmy.
About the Sibu Market
We met Timmy in the triangular plaza in front of the market. I glanced up at the building in awe. It’s a megalith.
Over 6 stories tall and 18,000 square metres, it was built to encompass an area where once about five small, scattered, and sketchy little markets once made illicit trades. Sibu was different back then. You can see it in the photos.
For example, until 1990 there was a river here, running the length of Jalan Channel. It was called the Lembangan River, lined by shacks on stilts leaning out over the water. After a fire destroyed the shacks, the city council filled in the river and built the Sibu Market over the top.
They finished the market in 1996. I guess the river is still under there somewhere.
The market brought everyone, all those sketchy shanty markets, under a single roof, uniting them into the largest market in all of Malaysia and a major tourist attraction.
Even Malaysians go to Sibu just to see the market. There’s a lot of stuff in there.
The top three floors belong to the Urban Transportation Center, a federal government agency. The second floor has a huge hawker food center. And the ground floor is all fresh fruits, vegetables, spices, meats, and more.
There are so many vendors, over 1500 of them, that they spill out the front doors of the building and across the tiled plaza.
Before we settled on the durian and devoured, I had to see what other exotic fruits and vegetables we’d find inside. After all, Sibu is in the heart of Borneo, one of the most biodiverse places on this planet.
Daun Ubi Tumbuk
I stopped to watch him watch her as she kneaded and pounded, neatly folding the stringy deep green fibers over and before mashing them again. Her fingertips were stained green, the swirls and swooshes highlighted by the color.
When she smiled at me, not pausing in her rhythmic pounding, he looked up and I snapped this photo.
She was mashing cassava leaves, a tough green shaped like a hand or a many-fingered maple leaf. Even cooked it’s chewy and fibrous, which is I guess why she was breaking it down by hand.
She sold the finished leaves in bowls like this to be boiled with coconut milk and spices.
Over the top she had sprinkled rounds of thinly sliced ginger, and was selling it for 2RM (0.45 USD) per bowl. That’s a pretty good price for a quick-fix dinner.
It seems really simple, but it’s a style of preparing cassava leaves that I’ve never seen on Peninsular Malaysia.
And if you wanted, you could add these pretty golden eggplants and make a proper soup.
Iban Eggplant (Terung Assam)
These are a local variety of eggplant (
The golden orbs are similar to the spongy, starchy vegetables we eat in America but with a different flavor. They’re sometimes called “sour eggplants” for their slight lemony flavor. They’re usually boiled in soup to give a fresh, citrusy flavor. I just think they’re beautiful.
If you want to try growing them in your garden, you can order the seeds here.
But enough about vegetables. I know why you came to this site.
The durian is obvious at the Sibu Market. It’s right out front, in the triangular plaza splashed with bright spots of color from the tents and beach umbrellas on the corner of Jalan Mission. I caught a whiff of the place from a block away, so I knew we were getting close.
There was more durian here than anywhere we’d seen on our 2017 Sarawak Trip so far. The fruits were sprawled lazily across the ground in loose piles, rolling against the vendors feet as they sorted them. Ten ringgit for durians in this pile, 6 ringgit for durians in that pile.
Most of was unnamed durian kampung of varying quality (generally pretty good), but we found some major prizes too.
Pakan – Durio Kutejensis
I decided long ago that I didn’t care for Durio kutejensis. It’s just not duriany enough for me.
It smells like bubblegum and pineapple instead of sulphury and herby. It’s often waxy instead of creamy and smooth.
Sure, it’s a good fruit for people who don’t like durian, but I want a durian that tastes like durian.
Then Timmy opened this one, and everything I thought I knew about Durio kutejensis fell away.
Just look at the intensity of that color. Even when I was looking at it in real life with my real eyeballs, picking out a glowing pod to pop into my mouth, it was hard to believe it wasn’t photoshopped.
And this was good. This was dense. This was creamy. This was sweet, with its uniquely not-but-almost-durian flavor, but rich. It had none of the insipid fake fruit flavor I’ve been objecting to in Durio kutejensis all these years.
I realized that just like every other fruit, there are good Kutejensis varieties and bad Kutejensis varieties, and also that most of the Kutejensis I’d been eating had been picked unripe. That’s why it was waxy.
This, at last, was the real deal.
Lai – Durio graveolens
There was a lot of Durio kutejensis around, but there were also several crates of Durio graveolens.
From the outside, we couldn’t tell if they would be the variety that was orange or yellow inside. Locals don’t differentiate between them, calling them both just Lai.
I hoped orange, because that’s my favorite.
The orange graveolens is really sticky, like someone smeared half-dried peanut butter over a smooth dark seed. You have to suck on it, there’s just no way around it.
I thought the durian vendor, Ah Lau, was grumpy when we first arrived. He stood with his arms crossed, beer belly protruding, watching us dig through his piles looking and sniffing and getting unreasonably excited over the Durio graveolens.
Then he pulled something special from his pile and wacked it open.
“You try that,” he said. I looked at it with disbelief.
“Is that..?” I said pointing.
“D2,” said Ah Lau.
I was impressed. I didn’t think there were any branded durian varieties in the area. We hadn’t found any so far on our trip, not even in Sungei Stubau’s old durian orchards.
I love D2. It’s one of Peninsular Malaysia’s oldest durian varieties, registered with the agricultural department in 1934.
The best part about D2, besides it’s gorgeous orange-hued color, is its slightly cherry liqueur flavor. It’s super smooth, and creamy, and I’ve long suspected it’s the ancestor to the more famous durian variety, Red Prawn.
We happily consumed all of it, and then while we were licking our fingers Ah Lau pulled out another.
“This one,” he said with assurance.
Really Yummy Unnamed Durian
It was beautiful, with the firm pillowyness of a D24.
I actually asked Ah Lau if it was D24, that’s how similar it was.
“No name, no name,” he said shaking his head emphatically.
So I’m sorry I can’t tell you how to ask for this durian when you go to Sibu Market, because it was excellent.
Just find Ah Lau and ask him. The man obviously knows how to pick.
We picked up as many durians as we could carry, and even though we were already getting full from all the sampling and Ah Lau’s picks, we made one last purchase.
We thought it might be a cempejak, because the aroma was so floral and bubblegummy.
Whatever it was, it was absolutely gorgeous when we pulled it open, juicy and sweet. If only we didn’t have wild durians and regular durians and even a terap, it would have been the star of the meet up.
We just needed somewhere pleasant to sit down, relax, and devour it all.
Where we ate
There is nowhere to sit on the lower floors of the market. The plaza, strewn with durian, has as little protection from the noonday sun as the Grand Canyon. It was hot.
We carried our stash across the street to the shaded, tree-lined pedestrian path built in a lazy wave along Jalan Chambers, its serpentine form almost like a mimicry of the river that once flowed there.
There we sat in the shade, away from the hubbub and temptation of the durian stalls, and just focused on enjoying each other’s company and the tasty fruit.
Where we stayed
We stayed at Li Hua Hotel on the riverfront on the 8th floor. This was one of my favorite hotels we stayed at in Sarawak. A spacious, spotlessly clean room for four people was just 95 RM per night, with a sweeping view over the river and the city. Wi-fi worked great, and the staff was really helpful, Jun especially (thanks Jun, you’re awesome!)
They were so nice we felt guilty for bringing a durian up the elevator and into the room — so guilty we devised a way of keeping our durian nearby but not technically inside the room. That’s not breaking the rules, right?
How To Get To Sibu Market
The Sibu Central Market is located on the waterfront opposite the Express Boat Terminals to Kapit and further up the river.
Use the map below to go to the Sibu Market, or navigate to other spots of durian interest in Malaysia. Each pin is linked to a blog post about that location.