A Best Day Ever is not something I’ve ever been able to plan, although I’ve tried very hard. It’s like Best Durians Ever — they appear unpredictably, at surprising timings, in situations entirely dependent on context, who’s there and — yes — how good the durian tastes. When I planned a Honolulu durian hunt by bicycle with my friend Koa in the spring of 2016, I did not expect to find decently good, fresh durian in the downtown area, or have a day that I will always look back on as A Best Day Ever. Here is a little guide to some Honolulu durian spots (at least in the Chinatown area).
Thank you, Koa.
I peered down at the city sprawled beneath the airplane. Honolulu is the largest city in the Hawaiian Islands. With it’s impressive skyline silhouetted against an aquamarine sea, I had to remind myself that it’s not that big. Honolulu is 21 times smaller than New York City. And unlike NYC, it’s bordered by a white sand beach studded with palm trees.
Like most people flying into and out of the islands, I had a layover in Honolulu. It has the biggest airport and is a hub for flights from the mainland US and Asia. I was on my way to Bangkok on Air China, but I’d used Google Flights multi-city option to give myself one day in Honolulu to hang out with Koa and see the Big City, and another day to explore the rest of Oahu a little.
I’d met Koa at the 2015 Bao Sheng Durian Festival. You never know when or how you’ll see people again! (but for me, it’s likely over durian)
I felt lucky to have a local guide as we peddled along, enjoying a hot dry wind from the ocean. After so many months in Southeast Asia, the traffic felt calm and even sleepy.
The city is a little spread out, so taking a bicycle is really the perfect way to see the sights and enjoy the weather. Koa borrowed a bike for me from a friend, but this past summer a Bikeshare Program launched with “Biki” bikes you can rent out for an hour or a whole day. This makes it really easy to travel the 3 miles from the Waikiki or Ala Moana beach areas, where you’re likely to stay, to Chinatown, where you’ll be getting your durian fix.
About Honolulu’s Chinatown
Historic Chinatown is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Honolulu. Its first inhabitant built a house in 1810, and when the Chinese immigrants began arriving in the 1850’s to tend the sugarcane fields, this neighborhood quickly became something of a slum.
You can still kind of see it today in the narrow streets and snaggle-tooth line of shop houses crowded one on top of the other, but today most of the buildings date to 1900. That year, the Bubonic plague swept through the overcrowded neighborhood. The government decided infected houses needed to be burned, and when Oahu’s famous dry winds spread the blaze, most of the neighborhood was destroyed. 1900 is the year they rebuilt.
Koa and I parked our bikes so we could walk around and look at all the fruits.
Today the area is clean and quiet, the streets lined with a jumble of produce from around the world and around the islands. It’s seriously one of the best places I’ve ever visited to look for fruit.
Hawaii has a climate suitable to growing all sorts of exotic fruits, and as the largest market much of those fruits end up here. We found everything from the famous Hawaiian pineapple to Star Fruits, longans, rambutans, local varieties of bananas, local varieties of avocados, local imported persimmons.
Durian even grows on Hawaii, mostly on the Big Island, but a little on Oahu. We didn’t know if we could find it, but we figured we’d try to get ourselves some fresh Hawaiian durian.
It seemed like almost every little fruit shop had a sign out advertising durian within. It must be immensely popular here.
But it was almost all frozen, imported from Thailand. It’s kind of good, because you know you can find it here any time you get a durian craving.
This freezer was completely dedicated to durian, in a really tiny fruit shop hardly big enough to hold it.
Inside, were packs of frozen Monthong from the Arroy-D brand. At $9.95 per package, this wasn’t a bad deal.
It’s just not the same as fresh, and when there’s a possibility of finding some fresh durian around…
… we had to keep hunting.
We had wandered down to North King Street when one of those hot, dry, Oahu winds swept an unmistakable odor to us.
There was fresh durian about somewhere!
Oahu Market Durian
We found it at the Oahu Market, a large open air marketplace on the corner of North King and Kekaulike Street. It’s a collection of small stalls selling fruit and food, like in Southeast Asia but a lot cleaner.
It’s actually one of the oldest continuous businesses in Honolulu, opened by Young Tuck in 1904.
Here we found the Honolulu durian treasure we sought.
There they were, four stinky beauties shipped over from the city of Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii.
They weren’t cheap. At $6.95 per pound, a single durian cost us $37 USD (155 RM). Just recently (September 2017) I went back to Oahu Market, and the price had risen to $7.99 a pound, making my durian cost $42.
But we were excited. How often do you find fresh, American-grown durian in an American city?
They had two types, a Chanee-type and a Monthong-type. These durians are some kind of seedling of Thailand durian parents, rather than the true varieties.
Because we both like strong, pungent durians, we went for a Chanee-type. It was also slightly smaller, and let’s be honest — more than $40 a durian was out of our budget.
The quality wasn’t top notch either. It was going to be a gamble.
By looking at the stems, I could see that the durians had fallen at least 48 hours previously. It had, after all, been shipped over from the Big Island.
The stem was brown and dry and top, but hadn’t yet begun to wrinkle or shrivel. There was a chance this could be a very nice, decent durian. There was a chance this could be a watery, overripe durian.
We could have asked the lady at Oahu Market to open it for us and eaten it right there on the street, but we decided such a prize deserved a little more scenic environment.
Koa led us over to the Aloha Tower, less than a half mile away from Oahu Market. The Aloha Tower is actually a lighthouse. It was built in 1926 and used to be the tallest building in Honolulu at 10 stories tall. It would have been the first thing immigrants would have seen when they arrived to Honolulu.
Now it’s set in what looks like a shopping mall, with an unfriendly guard who told us to stop and walk our bikes.
We didn’t mind, because just through the entry of the Aloha Tower was our durian eating locale along the waterfront.
The moment of truth was upon us — would the durian be good, or had we just thrown away $40?
I was relieved. The color was pale yellow and it sparkled in the late afternoon sun. I was dreading opening it up to find the flesh all grey-blue, foamy with fermentation, and watery.
The durian had been paid in cash, and was nonrefundable. It could have been a bummer on an otherwise perfect day. After a day riding around, we were hungry, and the durian was perfect.
We shared the durian, sitting in the sun and watching boats bump back and forth in the harbor. It had been a successful little hunt. Then we rode off in the hot wind along Waikiki Beach to Diamond Head trail, for an epic sunset over Honolulu’s skyline.
From my experience, Honolulu is a very pleasant city to visit. It’s not a budget-friendly city, although there are some youth hostels along Waikiki beach and you can always try your luck couchsurfing. I was lucky to have a bed and a bike from Koa.
Because the durian comes from the Big Island of Hawaii, Honolulu isn’t really a durian destination per se. You shouldn’t plan your durian hunting trip around here. But if you’re passing through, have a layover, or live in the city and just really need to sate your cravings, Honolulu’s Chinatown is the place to go.
Go Find Honolulu Durian
Chinatown extends more or less from about Smith Street to River Street in the downtown district of Honolulu.
Oahu Market is on the corner of Kekaulike St and North King. See the map below: