“You pinch it,” I whispered. “Don’t take the whole piece.” I knew my friends were hungry.
We’d pulled off the highway in Kamunting, just north of Taiping in northern Malaysia, because there is a durian stall there open almost every day of the year. There was plenty of durian — but since it is Somehow Still Not Durian Season (this year is taking foreeeever) — the durian was all from Thailand. The trick was choosing durian that would be meet our more Malaysian-oriented palates.
This post is all about choosing durian that comes from Thailand, when you are not in Thailand, and when you just really really really need a durian.
Durian Near Taiping
Durian King is one of those stalls that is almost always open, year round. They sell local durian when it’s that time, or durian trucked in from Pahang or Johor or Penang when it’s those times, or, in late February to April, durian from Thailand.
Of course they didn’t announce that this was Thai Durian. They had signs over the fruits that said things like D15 and Udang Merah and D99. But I could tell just by a glance that these durians were none of those.
They were all well known and easily recognizable Thai cultivars.
It’s not that the stall was trying to hide the fruit’s origins. When I asked where they were from, the stall manager readily answered “Thailand.”
I wish I hadn’t forgotten his name 30 seconds after he told me, because he was nice. He let me rummage through his durians without complaint, and once he knew what we were after, helped me look.
So let’s break it down how you can get a good Thai durian (cuz I know you can’t wait any more for this ridiculously delayed 2017 season), starting with the three main types of Thai Durian commonly sold in Malaysia.
Disclaimer: Some of these photos are actually from Anjung Indah, in Penang, and a random durian truck in Kuala Lumpur. I’m just using them to demonstrate some key Thai characteristics, not to be sneaky.
D99 (Actually Kradumthong)
D99 is actually a completely different Malaysian durian, with roots in Thailand that are unclear (maybe Kob?). So let’s just skip over that misuse of nomenclature.
Kradumthong is a round, pumpkin-shaped durian with small thorns and very obvious lobes, making it look like a daisy or a star fruit when viewed from the top or bottom.
In Thai, the name means “Golden Button” and refers to the indented little belly-button on the bottom of the durian.
Kradumthong also has the same little black spike of dried-up flower that gives the more expensive variety “Black Thorn” it’s name. Kradumthong is not anything like Black Thorn.
Kradumthong needs only 90 days to mature from flowering, meaning that it is the earliest durian to be harvested every year and may be the one you encounter in late February or March when you start going to Geylang or the Sri Hartamas stall out of pure durian-deprived desperation.
Kradumthong is pale yellow inside (this one is paler than normal), which appeals to the Malaysian demand for yellow flesh, but the flavor is sweet caramel at best and flavorless butter at worst.
I almost never buy this variety, even when I’m in Thailand. If you’re like me, and can’t stand super sweet, fruity, buttery durians, save your ringgits for:
Udang Merah (Actually Puangmanee)
The Taiping stall had labeled this small, pear-shaped durian with small thorns Udang Merah (Red Prawn). It’s not an unusual mislabeling, since Puangmanee does sort-of-kind-of-ish-ish ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ look like Johor-grown Red Prawn. Red Prawn grown in Johor usually has green spikes, rather than brown.
Puangmanee is also sometimes called Musang King, because it’s green, pear-shaped, has an almost-star on the bottom and has bright yellow-orange flesh that is reasonably sticky (but not nearly as dry as Musang King).
I actually met Manee herself last year. She’s a darling 80-something who lives in Chanthaburi and speaks not a word of English. We visit her on the Thailand Durian Tour, and I’ll be excited to share a post about the origins of Puangmanee and photos of the mother tree very soon.
Puangmanee is usually a safe buy. You’ll notice that the pods are very round and plump, a bit firm yet not fibrous, and frequently have only one pod per section.
When freshly dropped from an old tree, it’s both bitter and fruity and just wonderful.
Of course, you won’t get to experience the extreme goodness of Puangmanee if you’re buying it in Malaysia and Singapore. It will be just pretty good.
But if your need is great enough, sometimes pretty good is plain good.
It’s always got a pleasant nuttiness, mixed with a more floral flavor. I’m usually decently happy with a Puangamanee buy, and it seems like other durian lovers are too because it seems like they are getting more popular.
I think if anyone ever starts exporting other Thai cultivars to the US, this would be a great option (*nudgenudge*)
But it’s still not as common as:
D15 (Actually Chanee)
Chanee is the big hefty one. It used to be the commercial durian in Thailand, and is still grown in large amounts along the Thai border and Gerik area, which is why there’s so much of it available. It’s typically large, at least 2 kg, and it’s thorns are huge, blocky, and normally a dark green.
This one is actually synonymous with D15, with the difference that D15 is grown in Malaysia and so has a different taste.
This is also the durian that someone in Geylang once tried to convince me was a Musang King (one of my earliest blog posts, be prepared).
Chanee is popular in Malaysia and Singapore in the off-season for two reasons:
- Yellow flesh
- More bitter taste (sometimes)
I like Chanee a lot. When it’s ripe, and soft, it has a strong durian flavor with a hint of something so bitter it’s almost metallic.
But — and this is a big BUT — if Chanee is not fully ripe, it’s Froot Loop-Level sweet and fibrous.
So it’s important to get really familiar with figuring out when a Thai Durian is ripe, when it’s gone bad, when you should buy it in the packet vs. the shell, and when you should just take your disappointment and leave with an empty stomach but full wallet.
Choosing Good Thai Durian
There just isn’t gonna be a lot of aroma with Thai Durian, so selecting by smell is not always an option. Here’s what to do instead:
Avoid Yellow Durians
Do not buy durians that look like this. This is a Kradumthong at a small stall on the highway near Penang. It was sitting there for a long time. I don’t know how long. I don’t want to know.
Usually (with the exception of some freak durians in Puerto Rico), by the time a durian has been off the tree long enough to turn from it’s normal greenish-brown color to a golden or yellow color, it’s gone bad. The inside will be soft, watery, and probably sour. No thank-you.
Look at the Stem
Why does imported Thai durian taste so different than local Malaysian durian? The key component is that Thai durian for export is typically cut off the tree 7-9 days before the durian would have fallen on its own.
This makes the durian develop a sweeter, fruitier flavor than if it had stayed on the tree.
It also makes spotting a Thai durian ridiculously easy. Just look at the stems for these four things:
Look for the Natural Break (Abscission)
When durians are cut off the tree, they are normally cut above the natural breaking point where a durian would, given time, fall off of the tree by itself.
This point looks like a finger knuckle. The stem swells slightly wider around the natural breaking point, which usually has a visible line.
If you can see this line, and the stem is shaped like a vase, it’s definitely been cut early.
However, as the durian continues to ripen off the tree, releasing ethylene gas, this point will weaken to the point where the top of the knuckle will fall off on it’s own. This is a clue that the durian flesh is softening.
Watch for Sliced-Off Stems
Occasionally, vendors will try to hide the fact that the durian was cut early by slicing the stem off below the knuckle joint.
You can tell it’s been sliced because the cut will be too smooth or flat across the top, and sometimes at a rakish angle.
Cutting the top off the stem also removes other signs that can tell you a lot about the durian, like:
Freshly cut and immature Thai durians are often treated with Ethephon, which is a ripening agent that releases ethylene gas and helps the durian soften up. Ethephon is typically applied to the end of the stem, and looks like a patch of yellow paint. Slicing off the end of the stem can hide this.
It’s use is regulated and Thai durians are often rejected from places like Hong Kong for having too high levels of Ethephon residue.
Just be aware that imported Thai durians are usually treated this way, and make your own decisions.
Dry, Wrinkled or Dark Stems
Sometimes vendors will also slice off the stem to hide that’s it’s starting to dry out, an indication that the durian is old.
If a durian stem looks dried out, like it’s shrunk or shriveled, or it’s an unusually dark color, it’s unlikely the durian will be any good. Since the stem looks like that, and the fruit is still green, it’s possible that this durian was cut-off the tree way earlier than Thai Durian Regulations allows, meaning the durian will never develop it’s full range of flavors, and whoever did the deed is criminal.
There are times we have to walk away empty-handed and durian sad. Finding stems that look like this is a sign that you need to Just Say No.
It’s hard, I know. But they say that if you practice saying no, it gets easier.
Once you’ve selected a green or brown durian with a nice, fresh, plump looking stem that broke at the natural breaking point and wasn’t sliced off, you can shake the durian.
Hold the durian with one thumb wrapped around the step and the other palming the bottom of the durian. Vigorously move it up and down. You should feel/hear the seeds clunking around inside the durian.
No clunk, the flesh is way harder than you’ll be interested in eating. Promise. Don’t do it. Unless you’re planning to cook it into Durian Curry.
Once you’ve figured out that the flesh is soft, the durian seller will cut a triangle shaped wedge out of the top of the durian. They do this in Thailand too.
Unlike in Thailand though, where you can merely poke it to verify it’s soft, in Malaysia you can take a tiny pinch and pop that into your mouth to see if the durian has any flavor. So far, they don’t let you do this in the US or Canada.
Sometimes a durian will soften but will taste surprisingly like nothing. This means it was picked so unripe the sugars never got a chance to develop.
No flavor and you can reject the durian and try for another one. Within reason of course. If there’s simply nothing that meets your standards, that’s just how it goes.
Safest Bet: Go For A Packet
I ended up going for the packet of durian. It’s not high class, sure, and I know a lot of durian snobs won’t buy them. Once in the open air, the aromatics that make durian delicious start fleeing into the atmosphere, so its usually better to buy it fresh and open it right then and there.
But, if after surveying the durian situation and discovering that nothing is ripe enough for your taste buds, or you and the seller are getting frustrated hunting for that one perfect durian, or you just feel lazy and want a quick fix, grab a pre-cut packet.
You can see by looking at it how ripe it is and save yourself the work.
Mine was pretty good. Which on that day, after a long hungry drive, was about the same thing as good.
Let’s be fair to the imported Thai stuff:
It’s come from far away, over a lot of days. OF COURSE it can’t compare to the Musang King that fell that morning 60 km away.
That doesn’t mean that Thai durian is bad.
Since being in Malaysia, I’ve gotten homesick and purchased blueberries imported from my hometown in Oregon. If you are Malaysian and aren’t particularly wild about blueberries, I can now understand that. The blueberries were mushy, a little mealy, and not very sweet.
So if you actually go to Thailand and eat a Puangmanee, or a Chanee, or even the caramel Froot Loop that is Kradumthong, the durian will be much much better.
But hopefully this little guide will help you to pick out the best from the pile, whether you’re in Malaysia or Singapore or one of the enlightened nations that import fresh durian, like Canada.
Happy Hunting! (And hang in there till durian season)
How To Get To Durian King in Taiping
Durian King is located on the left side of the A2 Highway just north of Taiping, across from the Petronas Station.
Here ↓↓ it is on a handy little Google Map.
In fact, you can virtually explore all the durian spots I’ve written about on this blog through this map. Happy Hunting!