In the last year (2016), something amazing has happened. Not one, but two durian-centric restaurants have opened in Georgetown, on the narrow, artsy-fartsy walking street called Lebuh Armenian. Durian is basically dessert already, but these guys have spun it half a dozen ways into sweets both familiar and fascinating. Let me introduce you to the Durian Dessert you can enjoy anytime of year in Georgetown when durian desperate or in need of novelty.
I guess it’s also a good time to introduce you to Lee.
Lee is a food writer for the Asian Food Channel and an editor of a local Chinese circular. She’s also a professional food critic, durian lover and writer.
I like food critics. They’re interesting to watch eat stuff.
Lee and I are collaborating on something duriany that I will be so excited to tell you about. Soon. Very Soon.
But for the moment, it was useful to go to a durian dessert cafe with a food critic, since I can finally give you full reviews of all the durian desserts I will never taste because Vegan.
About Armenian Street
Armenian Street is a walking street in Georgetown filled with art galleries and small museums, Chinese temples, old churches and mosques, knick-knack shops, and snacks. It’s a hub of a tourism, abuzz all day with camera-laden groups huddled in the shaded shelter of shops licking ice cream cones.
The three blocks are concentrated history and local color. I like it to people watch, but there’s lots of small hidden entrances with things to do and eat. My friend Timothy Tye, of the encyclopedic website Penang Travel Tips, has created a map with all-the-things on Armenian Street.
It’s also home to Penang’s most famous mural, the two kids on a bicycle.
If you can believe it, Armenian Street was actually settled by Armenians. It’s one of Penang’s oldest streets, established before 1807.
Here’s what happened: in the 16th century, Iran invaded Armenia and brought captives back, who became an important and active group of traders, merchants and businessmen on the ships traversing Southeast Asia. They were some of the first to begin trading with the English when they colonized Penang in 1786.
A lot of hotels in Penang were founded by the Armenians, like the renowned Eastern and Oriental (The E&O).
The Armenian Street Heritage Hotel was not founded by Armenians and isn’t very heritage (Tim says it was founded in 2013), but it’s a nice, good-value, convenient place to stay.
Armenian Street isn’t very long, but it is pretty hot. So pretty quickly, you’ll start looking for a shop to dodge into to escape the sun.
Maybe this durian sign will catch your eye, like it did mine last summer when Durian Haven first opened. I was just out on a stroll, admiring the artwork, while some Bao Sheng Durian Festival guests finished up a vegan cooking class with the amazing Nazlina.
This time, Lee and I skipped the murals and went straight for the durian.
The entrance to Durian Haven is set back from the street, with a courtyard filled with knick-knacks and jewelry and clothing and signs to get you all hyped up for durian. There’s a lot on offer.
Then we walked inside and saw the menu.
Overwhelmed with choices much?
Then don’t turn around. Behind us there’s a whole wall of durian products in boxes asking to be taken home and shared.
On the left of this picture is Chee June Heng, the shop’s manager and co-owner. He’s the nephew of the woman who runs Durian Cottage in Malacca, and this new shop is their first branch.
It means everything inside the store is the same as what’s being sold in Malacca. I had some foreboding since, to be 100% honest, I wasn’t terribly impressed with a couple of the items I tasted at the Malacca shop.
The Durian Desserts
June laid almost everything out on the table (except the ice cream) and then instructed us in the order that everything on his menu needed to be tasted.
First the Durian Egg Tart (least strong). Then Durian Crepe Cake —> Durian Ice Creme –>Durian Creme Puff –> Durian Cheesecake –> Durian Cendol –> Durian Pancake –> Durian Daifuku.
It was too much. I wish you were there to help. Lee really needed you, since I wasn’t doing my fair share of the work. But I did take care of the first item of business:
Cendol (V is for Vegan)
We actually started out of order with the cendol because it was melting faster than I could take pictures. Ice is a key component of cendol, the fluffier and thicker the better, in my opinion.
Cendol is a vegan dessert very popular in Malaysia. It comprises of shaved ice, coconut milk, a brown palm sugar syrup called gula melaka, rice noodles flavored with pandan leaf, and a side of sweet adzuki beans.
Then it’s topped with a big helping of pure D24 durian flesh. This, of course, is my favorite part.
There’s something about the ice, or the coconut milk, or the sugar that durian just bonds with really well. It’s delicious.
But I’ve also developed cendol particulars.
For example, I wasn’t a big fan of the Durian Cottage cendol because it didn’t have enough ice. It was too sweet and dense with all the noodleage and sugarage and beans.
Durian Haven hit the middle path pretty well. I’d have preferred more ice, like at Penang Road Teow Chew Cendol, but Lee thought it was just right.
Durian Millie Crepe Cake
Next, Lee dug into the crepe cake. I’m not sure what this is or how many hours it took to lay down all the extremely thin layers held together with durian-infused cream.
After the cendol, Lee said it was too mildly durian. June was right, it should have been the starter durian dessert.
Lee thought that most hardcore durian lovers would find the flavor too mild, but that it was good gateway for beginners getting accustomed to durian flavor.
Then came the durian cheesecake, topped in chocolate ganache.
By the time we got to it, it had started to sag and bulge in the heat. Having never tasted cheesecake in my entire life, I thought this was interesting to watch.
Lee said it was rich and chocolatey, but that the chocolate overpowered the durian flavor. Again, a recipe for durian n00bs, not durian fanatics.
The cream puff was beautiful, squirting a delightful smudge of rich white cream.
Durian cream puffs are really popular in Malaysia and Singapore, and you’ll find them with reasonable regularity. A cream puff competitor is on the clan jetties.
Lee tore it in half, releasing a durian odor.
She said it was soft, and good, with a strong durian flavor.
The food critic approved.
But what she liked best was:
“Oh,” Lee said as she broke the pancake in half with a fork. “You can smell it.”
The durian pancake is made out of a light, chewy crepe filled with durian flesh and powdered sugar. Lee said it tasted fresh.
It was her favorite. Except maybe:
As instructed, we finished with the Durian Daifuku. Actually, I ate mine directly after the cendol. This durian dessert is vegan.
Daifuku is similar to mochi, but without the chewy, gelatinous exterior. This one is soft and a bit crumbly, made out of rice flour, but obviously a different kind.
They were much better than the ones I tasted at Durian Cottage in 2015.
I had two complaints about the Daifuku I tasted in Malacca: it was too dry and a bit stale tasting, and the interior cream tasted like there was too much sugar mixed with the durian puree.
In these, they had mixed D24 and Musang King together for a filling that tasted like pure, satisfying durian flesh. Which, to be honest, is all I really want.
Freeze Dried Durian (V)
Before we left, I snagged these off the shelves I mentioned I shouldn’t show you. I love freeze dried durian and try not to keep it around, because I will eat all of it.
I’d never seen Red Prawn or Black Thorn on offer as a freeze dried product. Think they’ll taste any different than freeze dried Musang King?
It will be interesting to find out.
But we weren’t done with durian dessert. No.
After leaving Durian Haven, we turned right and continued down Armenian Street to:
Men’s Kitchen Durian Desserts
Two blocks later, Armenian Street was quieter. The shop houses looked old, but had bright, new faces, like they had been recently renovated.
The Men’s Kitchen was easy to spot, since the signs out front were all about durian.
An entire page of their menu is dedicated to durian desserts, but unlike Durian Haven they aren’t a durian-specialty cafe.
They offer noodles and stir-fries and birds nest soup here too. I can’t comment on the quality of their non-durian dishes, since we didn’t bother, but they are apparently pretty popular for lunch.
When we arrived, the shop was almost empty. But by the time we left, every table was full.
We were lucky to catch Baxter during his down time, so he could sit with us and chat about the shop’s story.
“Oh,” he said laughing. “It’s just a short story.”
The shop opened last July, specifically to specialize on durian dishes. The three owners are men. Therefore, The Men’s Kitchen.
While we examined the menu, he brought us the shop’s specialty drink: Durian Latte.
Durian White Coffee is decently popular in Malaysia. It’s just an instant coffee powder that you can buy in a packet at the grocery store.
According to Baxter, their Durian Latte is the first place to use freshly brewed coffee with durian.
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I’ve had durian blended with cold-drip coffee in Vietnam. No milk needed. It was awesome.
Duo Durian Set (V)
To double up on durian deliciosness, we got the Duo Durian Set.
It came with two durian spring rolls and two of Durian Ice Fire Rolls, which sounded intriguing.
I actually tasted them, because they looked so weird. Inside a crispy white nest of fried vermicelli rice noodles, there’s a lump of frozen durian flesh.
The exterior was really crispy and crackly, which contrasted with the cold solid cream of the durian.
Baxter said that the Chinese tourists loved it. I can see why, but even the slight grease on the rice noodles bothered me.
When I asked Baxter which of his durian desserts had the strongest durian flavor for the most hard core durian lover, he suggested the Durian Volcano Tart.
“It’s almost like eating fresh durian,” he said, but hot and gooey.
He said the center filling was just pure durian flesh and sugar, so I dipped a spoon in and tasted it. It was hot and rich and extremely sweet, with a thick custardy texture. It was so dense I could swear it had eggs in it, but I don’t know for sure.
But he was right, the durian flavor was strong and caramelized, kind of like the barbecued durians I’ve tasted at Raub Durian Orchard. Maybe I’ll have to try roasting my own durian volcano tarts sometime!
It’s pretty exciting to think of all the things you can do with durian.
People weren’t doing much with durian when I first started my durian journeys. Durian was durian. You could either eat it fresh, or you could stay as far away as possible.
Now durians are on their way to trendy. More people are willing to try it, and gateways like durian cakes and pancakes and lattes are a fun way to get them started.
I still find that whatever it is — the cendol, the daifuku, the ice fire roll — I like the lump of solid durian flesh best and could discard the sweetened wrappings.
But it’s fun to see people putting the durian’s unique creaminess and amazing flavor to use, like we do with every other fruit.
And it’s nice to know a few places you can get your durian hit anytime of year, in any form you’re craving.
Get Your Durian Desserts
16 Lebuh Armenian, Georgetown
62 Lebuh Armenian, Georgetown