“Oh-ho, the Shangri La,” my friend mocked as I was getting ready to drive down the hill to a durian buffet in Batu Ferringhi. “Who’s your durian daddy?”
One of my durian tour guests was staying an extra few nights at the Rasa Sayang Resort and Spa, a 5-star hotel on the beach. I’d never set foot in such a place.
But with his room came a bonus package: an all-you-can-eat durian buffet, with two complimentary tickets.
He invited me. Could I say no? I mean really.
Could a 5-star resort serve anything but 5-star durian?
I do want to explain the fuzziness of some of these photos. My camera was in its last death throes and the new one was still on the way.
The Durian Shack
The durian buffet takes place in a small outdoor kiosk near the tennis courts. They call it the “Durian Shack,” but if you’ve been to a real durian stall (like Eng Hoe’s, just 3 km away) you’d have to beg to differ. The chairs at this shack shone with lacquer.
I was tickled when, moments after we arrived, a Sous Chef in full regalia entered the shack to pick out a durian for the night’s dessert menu.
Once the chef had left, it was just me, my new friend, and the two durian servers.
We picked a table and settled in. The parking lot was quiet, set far enough back from the busy Batu Ferringhi thorough-way that it was actually a pretty peaceful environment.
There weren’t that many durians in the pile, so pickings were slim.
I like to see what the experience would be like for people not accustomed to selecting their own durian. So I let the durian server pick out the first round. Without speaking to us, he opened a few durians and put them on the table.
The first was what looked to me like a D15. A D15 is a late season variety in Penang very similar in appearance to a Thai Chanee, and this one looked almost exactly like one that we would find in Thailand.
The flesh was a bit more yellow than a regular D15, more opaque, and was also quite a bit firmer.
Very firm, actually. I prodded the flesh. It was fibrous. I moved on to the next specimen.
The next durian didn’t have a name. Which was fine. That happens a lot with durians, it just means that it came from a tree planted by seed instead of a tree that was cut-and-pasted together by grafting.
But I was surprised he opened it for us. The durian was clearly overripe.
I’d actually never seen a durian this ripe served at a durian stall in Penang. Ever.
So let’s hold it right here. We need a chat about why you can tell this is an overripe durian just by looking at it.
Signs of Overripe Durian
There’s no wrong way to like your durian, but there are some telltale signs of where a durian is on its journey from ripening to rotten-ing.
The first sign on this durian was that the spikes had begun to yellow and to even dry at the tips. Bad sign, as it means the durian has been off the tree for more than a day.
The second sign was that the bottom of the durian had cracked open by itself, “smiling” as some people like to call it. This means that the shell has begun to dry, shrinking and pulling away from itself along the 5 “seams.” A little crack can be okay. A big grin means trouble within.
The quality of the flesh changes as it ripens. Durian flesh actually contains a lactobacillus bacteria culture, like cabbage. This is why you can easily ferment durian into a paste called tempoyak, and why durian sometimes ferments itself.
As the durian passes into senescence, the creamy, sticky flesh turns soft and sometimes watery. The skin grays, becomes translucent, and ruptures easily. Sometimes, as the flesh ferments, it rises and gets a puffy appearance, with little bubbles inside.
Avoid the bubbles.
To continue our story (which does have a happy ending) I rejected the no-name durian. It was just too ripe, and I didn’t like it or want me or my ex-tour guest/new friend to use our belly space on it.
Remember, we’d just spent a week wandering really high quality durian farms. This durian would have been adequate when desperate. But completely spoiled? No way.
Next, he brought out a Green Skin. It was better than either of the previous durians, but still wasn’t quite fresh. Look at where the skin has ruptured, and you’ll see that the flesh has started to turn foamy and expand.
At this point, I hopped up to do a little selecting for us. That’s when I noticed something that made a little incredulous.
They were cutting the stems
Many of the stems were too short, too perfectly cylindrical, and too perfectly flat across the top. Someone had cut them.
This doesn’t mean they were cutting the durians off the trees early, like they do in Thailand. They were shaving off the top part of the stem, the part that had begun to oxidize and turn brown, in order to make the durians look more fresh than they really are.
It’s a bit of durian deception I’ve seen elsewhere. But I wouldn’t have expected it from 5-star treatment.
It doesn’t mean the shaved-top durians were worse than the others. We ate this one about 2 minutes later.
Maybe it’s my weakness for Kun Poh, but I always like it.
But this isn’t the happy ending I promised you.
We walked away from our table at the fancy 5-star hotel, leaving about half the durian uneaten and trying to shake our guilt over the waste.
Then we crossed the street to the petrol station.
Video: 5 Minutes Later At Another Durian Stall
I know expectations can sometimes make things seem worse. It’s the contrast between what you imagine, and reality.
Was I excited to see a 5-star hotel? Definitely.
Was this the worst durian I’ve ever been given during the Penang Durian Season? Probably.
If it had been the off-season, and the durian was being imported from far away, I could have forgiven the general overripeness and low quality. But it wasn’t. There was better durian just across the street.
And whittling the stem down? Wtf was that about?
I really don’t know what to say. I think I’ve said enough already.
** Note that my friend did say it was a bit better on other days**
How to Get to Shangri La’s Durian Buffet
The Durian Shack is located in the parking lot between Shangri La’s two resorts: Rasa Sayang and the Golden Sands, just next to the tennis courts.
The two hotels are on the main road just as you enter Batu Ferringhi from Georgetown, and across the street from the Petronas petrol station and the McDonald’s.
Use the map below to navigate to the Durian Shack, or get inspiration for farms and stalls to visit further afield.