Today is my friend Sean’s 31st birthday, so we went durian hunting. It’s an infallible inference. In my world, birthdays = durian. But it’s March, and out-of-season durian in Penang can be a little hard to find. While out jogging, I’d seen durian at 818 Durian Stall, so this morning I called them up and made a little birthday reservation.
About 818 Durian
I pass by 818 Durian about three times per week while jogging. Sometimes more. It’s a small stall in the peninsula of a sharp switchback on the road between Teluk Bahang and Bao Sheng Durian Farm.
A weather beaten sign over the front announces they sell “Organik” durian, but I’ve always had my doubts.
Usually, I pass by in the evening, around the time Mr. Wong is taking the durians down from the strings that dangle around the perimeter of the stall. Usually I wave, and he waves, but we’ve never really talked.
One time I stopped to ask about their Organik durians. I didn’t learn much.
So I was glad to have an excuse to come down the hill and have an out-of-season durian party at this stall I pass by so often.
Our Visit to 818
We arrived at 818 around 3pm on a quiet, hot Tuesday in March, very squarely NOT THE DURIAN SEASON.
At Bao Sheng Durian Farm, just 2 miles away, the trees are just putting out flowers. There won’t be any fruit for 3-4 months. I knew that any durian we’d find would be imported from mainland Malaysia. Maybe Bentong, maybe Johor.
But when you’re hunting off-season durian, the where is really not that important.
Mr. Wong was asleep when we got there.
He rose long enough to point out the piles of durian. There was a lot more durian than I expected to see. How many durian tourists could possibly be passing by this quiet Tuesday afternoon in the not durian season?
He said he had Black Thorn, Red Prawn, Musang King, Tupai King, and Muar Hitam, all grown on his land somewhere in the vague mountain uphill from the stall.
I tried to press. At this time of year, that would be highly unusual. Where was his farm?
But as soon as he’d opened the durian for us, Mr. Wong returned to his chair and his nap.
It was a hot afternoon.
Cost 40RM per kilo, for a total of 80RM ($18 USD)
Left to fend for ourselves, we started with a large but very fresh looking durian called Tupai King. The spikes were bright green and the stem was surprisingly intact for a durian that I presumed had traveled for several hours to reach us, rather than the vague mountain farm.
Tupai means “squirrel” in Malay. It’s not a variety I’ve ever had before, but I’ve heard it recommended. This one seemed similar to a pretty average D24 — a little too soft, not quite bitter enough. But good quality for out-of-season durian.
Fake Red Prawn
Cost 40M per kilo, for a total of 40RM ($9 USD)
Next, I selected us the fake Red Prawn. I wanted to see what it really was.
I say fake, because anybody who’s ever held a Red Prawn in their own hands would know that this durian is not a Red Prawn.
Red Prawn has a unique appearance. It’s usually a greyish color, the thorns are short and spaced widely apart, and the shape is like a football or a Bosc pear.
This durian had none of the Red Prawn characteristics, outside or inside.
The flesh was pale cream and the texture was very soft, with an intense fruitiness and almost herbal quality that immediately reminded me of the Golden Phoenix I ate at Ah Tong’s Stall in Johor.
In fact, after reviewing the photos of other Golden Phoenix I’ve had, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was actually a Golden Phoenix, a durian highly respected in Johor that nobody grows in Penang.
This fact alone must have convinced Mr. Wong to rechristened it Red Prawn. Calling the durian it’s real name might have blown his cover about his vague mountain farm.
Fake Musang King
Cost 80RM per kilo, for a total of 80RM ($18 USD)
At this point I was just curious what Mr. Wong’s durians could really be. These were also obviously not Musang King. The shape was almost-but-not-quite right, and the color was right, but the shape of the thorns was just wrong.
But he was selling them for the premium price, even more than the 70RM you have to pay in Georgetown for the real deal.
Who shells out 80RM per kilo for a Musang King she knows is a fake? Me.
And also my friends.
I just like solving mysteries too much, and this one seemed familiar.
I’ve seen Thai Puangmanee being sold as Musang King this time of year, especially in Kuala Lumpur, but this durian just didn’t look quite right.
First I looked at the bottom of the durian.
Then I looked at the stem area.
Finally we just ate it.
The color was too pale to be a Musang King, just barely yellow, with a small bits of flesh that were dry, shrivelled, and almost doughy. It looked weird, and a lot like a uniquely dry, shrivelly durian I ate last summer: D1 from Pontian, Johor.
It even had the same little nibs of seeds as the D1.
So that’s our working theory. Our Fake Musang King was an extremely overpriced D1.
Cost 30RM per kilo, for a total of 63RM
It was becoming an expensive durian feed, but we needed just one more to top-off the party.
Luckily, we saved the best for last.
This durian Mr. Wong called either Mawar Hitam, or Muar Hitam. Hitam means “black” in Malaysia, usually referring to the darkness of the thorns, but if it was Muar, that refers to a place in Johor that grows the most durian out of any district in Malaysia.
My ears perked up. I was already thinking the durian seemed to be coming from Johor, but that seemed to cement it. Or I was letting my bias interfere with the inference.
At any rate, I think this one was misnamed too. I think it was a D101. But whatever, because this was the best of the batch.
Total Expense 263 RM, or $59 USD, or about $20 USD each
None of the durian we ate was poor quality. In fact, except for the Fake Red Prawn, I was pretty pleased with the freshness and tastiness. It was better than I’ve had at more reputable places in Kuala Lumpur, so pretty impressive for a tiny durian stand four miles up a snaking road from anywhere. Kudos, Mr. Wong.
This makes his stall a pretty good option for out-of-season durian in Penang.
However, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t lying to my face.
His claim that the durian was grown in Penang is close to impossible this time of year.
His claim that the Musang King looked weird because it was from a really old tree was a lie.
The “Red Prawn” he served us was a real Red Prawn only when hell freezes over.
As long as the durian is good I’m not that unhappy. But like most people, I don’t like being lied to. I’ll probably go back to Mr. Wong someday, but I’ll be keeping my wits about me.
So here’s my theory: I suspect all the durian was sourced from the state of Johor, which I know is having a minor season right now. I think the Musang King was really a D1. I think the Red Prawn may have actually been a Golden Phoenix. And I think our favorite, Mawar Hitam, may have actually been a D101.
It seems like a logical inference, right? What do you think? Take a look at the durians in the photos, and compare to the durians I’ve linked to. Tell me in the comments if you think I’m right.
Getting to 818 Durian
818 Durian Stall is located on a sharp switchback on the road between Teluk Bahang and Bao Sheng Durian Farm. It’s exactly 1 km from the Tropical Fruit Farm, and about 2 miles from Bao Sheng Durian Farm.
From Georgetown it’s about a 50 minute drive, so if you’re desperate for durian in the off-season you may be better off going to Ting Siang Hock Trading in downtown Georgetown.