When I tell you where I ate my 10 best durians of the year, I’m telling you a story about me. “Best durian” are deeply personal. They’re where I was and what I was doing and what was important to me when I ate them. This post, The 10 Best Durian of 2017 is essentially my life told through durians, in chronological order starting in January.
Some of these durians will mean nothing to you. My best durian is not likely to be your best durian. You might not even like my best durian. But maybe this list can be a starting place for you as you plan out your 2018 durian dream. A bit of #travelinspo if you will.
Hunt them down. Try them out. And inspire me back by telling me your top picks for 2017 in the comments below.
Happy New Year, Durian Lovers! ?
1. Durio kutejensis | Sibu, Malaysian Borneo
Where: Sibu Market, Sarawak
In January I rented a mini-car and headed north from Kuching. The car was so mini that when I hydroplaned it into a ditch during a rainstorm, four big guys were able to lift it out and put it back onto the road. I was delighted. Both to not be stuck — but just that the car was that small.
The car was a major milestone for me. I’d spent years traveling by bus, gazing out longingly at durians and markets rimming the highway and wondering what I’d find there if only I could stop and look down all the little country roads.
January, 2017 marked the first time I could afford to rent a car and get the independence I’d been craving. Now I could really roam. This was Durianhunt2.0.
It helped me explore my love of the tiny little places where durian grows. And while exploring place through durian has always been important to me, I felt like this was one of the first years I really got to dive in.
Because durian tastes the way it does because of all the details of weather and terrain that make up a place, and the people who grow it there. And what I learned about Durio kutejensis at the Sibu Market is that even other species can take on extremely different flavors depending on whether they’re cut or allowed to ripen on the tree.
I thought I didn’t like Durio kutejensis. I thought this wild jungle durian, sweet and waxy and almost pineappley, was too unlike a durian for me to ever like. I don’t like Fruit Loops or artificial-fruit candies. Never can and never will.
But with this deep orange, crazy creamy Durio kutejensis, I finally understood that this durian has a resonance to it. Sure, it’s sweeter and fruitier than Durio graveolens, in it’s peanut-butter glory, ever will be. But Durio kutejensis can also have a dense, sticky, smooth and fatty-tasting texture. And that deep orange color? Unreal.
2. Chat Mangkhon | Chanthaburi, Thailand
Where: Puangmanee Garden in Chanthaburi, Thailand
One of my personal favorite durians came while I was leading a group tour to the farm where the original Puangmanee durian tree grows. Puangmanee is one of the most popular durians in Thailand now, and is often exported to Malaysia where it is sold under a variety of names.
It was a soggy afternoon and I was having a difficult time deciding what to do next with the group. I kept peering at the sky, unable to tell if it intended to keep dumping water, or if it had nearly finished and would let us either explore the farm or go on wards. Should we stay or should we go? I felt nervous, trying to figure out what would make the group happiest.
They answered me with the bubbly, gungho enthusiasm that makes me love our close-knit, durian-loving community. Laughing and playing around, they chose to troop into the downpour to see the Puangmanee mother tree and the other 100-year-old trees on the property.
That’s when the Chat Mangkhon fell.
The Chat Mangkhon tree was tall. It was old. And finding that durian was like a little rainbow in the storm clouds for me.
Back under the patio, we shook off the water and cracked it open. This thing put Monthong’s golden pillow to shame. It was immense. It’s caramel-yellow slopes rose high from the shell and melted under our fingers, utterly fiberless, the texture smooth as butter but still holding it’s shape.
Just now I reminded Parisa about it and we agreed it was one of the best durians of the year.
But for me, this durian didn’t save the day. The durian lovers did, and as I settled back and relaxed with my fingers plunged into the heart of a fat Chat Mangkhon seed, I realized that as a tour leader I can only do so much. I can’t control the weather or when exactly a stellar hundred-year-old durian will fall.
But I can trust you durian lovers to be the cool, adventurous, fun-filled people I love to be around, and are the reason I’m still durianing all these years later.
3. PG88 | Penang, Malaysia
I spent most of my summer in Penang, trying to finish collecting photos for my new book, The Durian Tourist’s Guide to Penang. It was a project I’d been working on for years, but hadn’t had the fire or assistance I needed until I began working with a local Malaysian publishing company and my now good friend Lee Choo to create the guide in Chinese.
Lee was able to take the time to go with me on interviews and help me translate information I’d compiled in Chinese years ago but was unable to read. Suddenly, durians I’d been hunting for for years began popping out of the woodwork.
The very last one was PG88.
Collections may be futile, but when they’re complete it’s so, so sweet.
And of course, PG88 showed up where I’d started looking for it years ago — at 81 Durian Stall in George Town. In 2014, the year I first conceptualized a Penang Guide, I visited 4 George Town Durian Stalls in a single afternoon. My favorite of the bunch that day was 81 Durian with Mr. and Mrs. Wong.
I was surprised what a perfectly perfect durian PG88 is. Beautiful really. Symmetrical, plump, and a gorgeous rosy yellow. The flavor was excellent, not bitter but whipped smooth like melting marzipan and wine. It was one of my favorite tasting durians, hard-won and satisfyingly complete.
The circle closes.
4. Honey Durian | Penang, Malaysia
Where: The Guy On Chulia Street, Penang
When: Early July
Another durian that took me about two years to track down was Chang Chin Hoe’s Honey. He described it to me in the summer of 2015, grinning and promising that it was unlike any other durian in Penang. I didn’t believe him.
“It tastes like honey, really,” he said. “Like creamy, sweet, but little bit sour. Just like honey.”
Back then, I had yet to taste the thin local kelulut honey, made by the stingless bees, so I didn’t understand what he was trying to describe.
This summer 2017, my friends Jay, Andre and Bianca met up at Ah Hoe’s durian stall on the crowded and touristy Chulia Street. It is not a place that promises unique, boutique, hard-to-find little durians, but you shouldn’t judge a stall from it’s location.
Honey was a small, narrow durian with a dark orange flesh. Just like Ah Hoe promised, it was like no other durian I’d tasted in Penang. I almost wondered if it had some Durio lowianus genetics in it to give it that really tangy, strong back flavor — sweet and vinegary like the kelulut honey.
If you want something different tasting in 2018, definitely track down Ah Hoe’s Honey.
5. Red Prawn | Penang, Malaysia
Where: Soon Huat Durian Farm
As Lee and I got closer to finishing The Durian Tourist’s Guide to Penang, there was one chapter that was glaringly missing: the story behind Red Prawn.
Red Prawn is arguably the most famous and expensive durian on Penang Island. I’d found the name of the man who first registered it on the MARDI website and tracked down his daughter more than 3 years ago. But according to his daughter, he both didn’t speak English and didn’t want to speak to me.
He’s basically a hermit, his daughter said, shrugging on the phone. He’s retired. He doesn’t want to talk to any media about durian, not even a durian-crazed ang moh.
He was a mystery. All the old durian farmers seemed to know him, or know of him, but nobody seemed to know him well enough to introduce me. I started imagining him as an angry old Chinese man who would probably just yell a lot if I ever did manage to find him.
Three years later, Lee and I tracked down his home phone number in an old book written 20 years ago. Miraculously, the phone number still worked. I waited with baited breath as Lee called him. She was nervous, having also heard the rumors of his hermit-habits.
Instead, a lovely, soft spoken gentleman picked up the phone and invited us over for a chat one afternoon.
He surprised us with best Red Prawn I have ever tasted. I’m not a Red Prawn fan, usually, but his Red Prawn was so soft, so gentle, so cherry-chocolate whipped, that I had a new appreciation for this popular variety in Penang.
6. Golden Phoenix | Tangkak, Malaysia
Where: Durian Agro Hub, Tangkak Johor
When: Late July
As I began to prepare for the summer Durian Tours, I realized I had a bit of a problem.
The durian season was really weird this year, due to too much rain at the wrong times. I needed to expand my durian territory to find the really good stuff.
So I began wandering south, expanding into new territory for me. I mean I’d been to Johor before, but I hadn’t seriously seriously durian hunted before. I didn’t know Johor like I knew Penang, and I realized that to really do the tours well, I needed to expand my farm network down there and get to know Johor’s varieties.
So I rented a car. And with the freedom of some wheels, I went looking for Johor durian varieties. Hence: Golden Phoenix.
Golden Phoenix is a popular variety in Singapore and south Malaysia. It’s a small durian, with little bitty seeds and a mild, inoffensive, almost herbal tea flavor.
I’d had it at Ah Tong’s Stall in Johor Bahru before, and later in Singapore, but didn’t think much of it.
I didn’t think much of it until I tasted it in Tangkak, Johor, the home of the Golden Phoenix Mother Tree. Which is still alive.
After the effort it took me to track down mother trees in Penang, it was shocking to so effortlessly come across the Golden Phoenix mother tree. And then taste a Golden Phoenix from the mother tree.
I realized I must have learned something from all the work I’ve done in durian over these years, and maybe I thought, just maybe, in 2018 I can finish collecting all the Malaysian durian varieties listed on the MARDI website. There’s a new goal!
7. Thong Yoi | Had Yai, Thailand
Where: Random Stall, Had Yai
When: Late August
As the summer and durian season waned, I was ready for an adventure somewhere new. I’d been in Malaysia for months. I needed to reset my visa. I needed to reset myself. Change of scenery time!
I borrowed a car from a friend in Penang and drove north into Southern Thailand, crossing the border into Had Yai where I picked up my good friend and fellow durian guide Parisa. What better than two durian crazed girls on a road trip?
On our first day, we stumbled across this Thong Yoi at a roadside stall just outside of Had Yai. It was pure nutty-delicious luck, and a great start to a great trip and an even better collaboration.
In the second half of 2017, I began putting into realization how much I love collaboration and working and traveling with others. Parisa is one of my favorite people. She works hard, she loves durian, and it’s a blast coming up with new ideas together.
Like a new tour in Southern Thailand. We spent the two weeks together driving up and down the Thai peninsula, looking for new durian varieties and cool places to bring groups. It’s so much more fun to durian hunt when you have a friend to share your finds with.
So I remain grateful both for the Thong Yoi, which was as fatty and rich as some kind of marzipan, but also for the person to share it with.
8. Pohakulani | Big Island, Hawaii
Where From Alva, Big Island
In September I flew to the Island of Hawaii as a guest speaker for the Hawaiian Tropical Fruit Growers Association. It was the first time in my life I wasn’t sick-to-my-stomach nervous before speaking in public. Which was great, because it meant that I could really focus on meeting Hawaiian durian lovers. And there are a lot of them!
Hawaii floored me with how beautiful it was. After 9 months in Asia, I couldn’t believe how clean it was. The skies were clear of haze. The roads were clear of plastic. Everything just popped.
And the durian scene was popping too. People in Hawaiia are EXCITED about durian, and there is a lot of innovation and growth happening. Watch out Malaysia: Hawaii is on the rise.
So I was thrilled to finally taste a famous Hawaiian durian cultivar, one that my durian-loving friends swear up and down is as good as any bitter Tekkah or Arancillo: Pohakulani.
Pohakulani is an early season cultivar that originates on the Big Island. The mother tree is still there, on a street called Pohakulani. I’d never arrived in Hawaii early enough in the season to taste it.
I almost missed it this time around too, and certainly would of without the help of Mike and Alva (?thank you ?). It was again a time when I was grateful for so many enthusiastic people, a tribe of durian lovers working and collaborating toward the same goal. The Hawaiian durian scene makes me excited, and so does Pohakulani.
Because Pohakulani was a lot like a Tekkah. It’s an off-white, slightly ivory colored durian, usually less than 1kg in size, with that same burnt-caramel-sugar, super fatty and rich texture that I associate with an awesome Tekkah. I think I still like Tekkah better (looking at you Rylew) but I can really see some potential in Pohakulani.
Just like I see potential in Hawaii. So in the second half of 2017, I decided that I was going to make Hawaii one of my home bases (along with Penang). With the new Air Asia budget flight from Honolulu to Kuala Lumpur, it’s financially viable for me. So in 2018, I’ll be looking forward to exploring more of the people and durians of Hawaii.
9. Beruk | Wilayu Village, Java
Where Wilayu Village, Wonosobo Central Java
When Early December
I’d been planning a return trip to Borneo all year, since leaving Sarawak the past February. But the durian seasons shifted with the weird weather patterns, and when I arrived back in Malaysia in November, ready to durian hunt, there were no durians ready for me in Borneo.
Then one of my durian fans in Java reached out to me. The Indonesia durian lover scene is strong, but I hadn’t spent a lot of time over the years connecting with them — in part because my Bahasa Indonesia was not very good. But this last year, I’d improved my language skillz a lot, enough that when I started planning a trip to Java I was suddenly able to connect with a lot more people.
I spent 15 days in Java in December, bouncing from one acquaintance to another across the central part of the island. It was amazing to return to an area I’d been to all the way back in 2012. Back then, I found traveling in Java so challenging I kind of hated it. But this time, I loved it.
Central Java is just so beautiful.
There are volcanoes, steaming thermal works, rugged red landscapes and gorgeous green lakes. I fell in love with the landscape, but also with the people. Indonesian durian lovers opened their homes and and their farms to us, and I felt like I was seeing a whole new Java from the one I remembered.
An area I really connected with was Wilayu Village, near the volcanically active Dieng Plateau. The village itself was beautiful, tidy and colorful and full of little murals. And their Baruk durian — a bitter, caramel durian that reminded me of Tekkah — was definitely one of my favorites of the year. The tree is at least 80 years old and grows between a paddy field and a river where you can go inner tubing.
I’ll be writing more about Wilayu Village on this blog, so watch out for that post!
Thanks again to Kresna and everyone who took the time to show us the beautiful parts of Java.
10. D17 | Johor, Malaysia
Where Uncle Lim’s Durian in Pekan Nanas, Johor, Malaysia
Johor is the state that grows the most durian in all of Malaysia. About two times more durian than anywhere else, actually, and after tasting Golden Phoenix my interest in Johor was piqued. It was time to get to know this state and its durian better.
So as I got ready for December’s Durian Tour, I borrowed a car from a friend and set off to explore the durian farms and durians of Johor.
Right away I found D17 in Pekan Nanas, a bitter all-time favorite from 2016. It didn’t disappoint me this year.
In fact, Johor didn’t disappoint either, and as I headed back north to Kuala Lumpur after just a few days, I realized just how much more I have to explore.
Themes From 2017
Going over 10 Best Durian of 2017, I see certain patterns that made the year different from previous years.
I finished a lot of things. I found durians and durian farmers I’d been chasing for years. I wrote a book. I published a book. In Chinese. I was shocked that such a thing could happen.
I collaborated a lot more. I invited a lot more people into my life, and traveled in groups more. I found my peer group, or you found me.
This durian loving community is growing. And I can’t wait to meet more of you.
What’s Next For 2018 Durian
So with reflection, we make a plan right? What do we want in this coming year? What goals do we have, things that we’ve been wanting that we can make real?
Maybe for you it’s going to any of the places I just mentioned, or eating any of my selections for best durian. It’s time for you to have an adventure, to get out and meet people and eat and absorb.
Maybe you want to come on one of my tours, and this post is enough to kick you out the door towards your durian dreams.
Or maybe you want to start a farm, plant some durians for yourself, and help people to have their own best durian experiences.
Me, I want to travel slower. Deeper. I want to take more time to get to know a place and its durian and its durian people. I want to work on building deeper relationships.
I plan to return to places that snagged my D-addicted brain: Hawaii, Johor, Java, Sarawak. I want to get to know these places and their durians as inside-and-out as I know Penang, and also cement my friendships and relationships there.
So watch out for a lot more in-depth content on Year of the Durian! And if you want to travel with me, make sure to sign up for Inner Durian Circle Mailing List below.
Have a great 2018 everyone!