They were just sitting by the road in piles of four next to all the other durians — the orange-fleshed Durio graveolens and waxy yellow Durio kutejensis and the boring white-fleshed Durio zibethinus stacked like a game of marbles. It was weird to see them there. It was too easy. Didn’t tasting Durio dulcis require some kind of mad trek into the jungle?
I mean, that’s what we did last time. In 2012, I found Durio dulcis after an 20+ hour bus ride to a longhouse and a trek into the dense forest behind, where we were destroyed by mosquitoes and my ex likely contracted dengue (or maybe it was the sleepless night at a mosquito-infested guesthouse two nights later. Who can tell these things?).
There weren’t any mosquitoes in the parking lot.
About Durian at the Simpang Palas Intersection
It was just a parking lot around a small convenience store (called the Palas Store), 20 miles from anything. Further down the road lay the border to Brunei. Back the way we’d come was Limbang, a river town and port where historically loggers and miners came down from the mountains to rest and spend their paychecks.
Simpang Palas was like all rural places. From the road, we could see driveways leading into thick mango and durian orchards, the occasional red tin roof popping out of the thick foliage.
The intersection is just out there, a remote post where you can pick up some laundry detergent and cooking oil and top-up your mobile phone credit without driving for an hour to the city. And apparently, check Durio dulcis off your weekly grocery list.
No big deal or anything.
Simon swung the car into the lot and we all piled out to have a look. Three old women, two wearing 80’s-style track suits, sat in the shade beneath the tin roof shelter. Durians and dabai and yellow rambutans spread over the table and onto the ground, spilling into the intense blue-sky sunlight.
While I snapped a photo of the shelter, Simon and Justyna quickly bought both piles for just 15RM each. They were the cheapest durians at the stall.
It was like finding ruby earrings sold for a lower price than some cheap glass studs. Like, do you understand how rare these are?
Jabit, the elderly lady selling the durians, called them Durian Api, or Fire Durian.
The thorns of the Dulcis had turned dark and even slightly brownish in the sunlight, but we could still see the bright red and yellowish tips that made each durian look like a young sun encased in fire.
Jabit said they came from her brother’s backyard. We all looked at each other.
About Durio Dulcis
Odoardo Beccari is the one who called it “sweet,” back when the 22-year-old Italian was living at a research camp on the hillside of Mount Matang near Kuching. It was 1865, and at least in my imagination, by the time he got to the Dulcis tree his pith helmet was ripped apart by thorny rattan palms and stained brown and red by mud and leeches. I just always assumed it took sweat and tears to get close to a Durio dulcis tree.
I don’t actually know that Italians deigned to wear pith helmets.
But from his writing, Beccari was a bigger fan of Durio dulcis than most people today. Except maybe us.
Definitely. I like this Durio.
Justyna and I could barely wait to get a taste. While Simon pumped Jabit for information about the whereabouts of her farm (and the Durio dulcis trees), she snipped open the plastic ties (ikat) with the point of a small machete and began to whack away, making a rhythmic thumping noise.
Durio dulcis is really hard to open — harder than you can imagine. It has the sharpest, pointiest, dagger-like thorns arranged like shark’s teeth, with an extra jagged row of short thorns close to the husk just in case the long ones didn’t do enough damage.
If they have seams at all, the cement-like husk doesn’t give way under the normal twisting and tugging of the knife.
But Jabit had skills. This was a lady who had been enjoying the Fire Durian for a long, long time. Inside, the flesh was a much brighter yellow than I had seen before in Durio dulcis.
What Durio Dulcis Tastes Like
The smell was everything I remembered. It overpowered everything, until my whole nasal cavity was filled with the strangely tangy, intense, baking-mint-chocolate-chip-cookies sweet aroma.
It was the smell that first inspired Beccari to go looking for the tree.
“Attracted by the sweet and delicious scent exhaled by some fallen fruits,” wrote Beccari, “I discovered one of the most exquisite wild durians of Borneo, Durio dulcis.”
Many websites claim that this is the sweetest durian, but I don’t know that if you measured the brix it would really be much higher than a sugar-loaded Musang King (around 37 brix).
They are definitely a sugar-hit mellowed by a cool, menthol, minty aftertaste. I think the best taste comparison I can make is a Thin Mint girl scout cookie, with more sugar added.
Simon had his heart set on finding the trees and tasting a really, truly fresh one –one with red thorns not browned by sunlight.
So he convinced Jabit to take us to the trees.
About the Durio Dulcis Trees
The Durio dulcis were not in some wild jungle up a mountain at the back of Jabit’s brothers property.
The two trees loomed over a tidily maintained farm, just a dozen meters away from her brother’s house.
Edit: The second time we went to visit, we got to meet her brother, Tapil, and his wife Paula, who speaks really good English.
Paula told us that Tapil was born in the snug little farmhouse before there was a road, because the backside of the property is along the river.
His father cleared the property except for a looming Durio dulcis tree, which his father kept because he liked to eat the fruits.
When Tapil was around 10 years old, the old tree began dying. So his father took the seeds and planted 3 new trees.
But you know, it’s sometimes hard to know where the farm ends and the jungle begins. There’s a blending of boundaries — after all, it was all jungle once.
The trees were buttressed and covered in moss and epiphytes and looked ancient.
Jabit said they were probably around 40 years old. Her father had planted them.
This blew me away a little bit, since everyone I’ve talked to about this durian told me that nobody eats them and nobody likes them so nobody plants them.
Except us, because we durian lovers are freaks right?
Simon was in seventh heaven as he foraged through the ferns, scooping up the red-shelled durians around the base of the trees that Jabit had discarded as not worth selling.
There were over a dozen perfectly edible fruits.
After so long hunting Durio dulcis, it was a crazy feeling to suddenly have them in abundance, without any sweat or tears.
It was just smiles and friends and hugs this time.
Where to stay
Simpang Palas and the farm are kind of in the middle of nowhere. Which is why it’s so fantastically lucky that there is a Bisaya homestay here, just 400 meters from Paula and Tapir’s Farm!
The homestay has 3 bedrooms (no air-con, just fan), and you get to stay with two Auntie’s who can teach you how to cook delicious vegan Bisaya food and play dress up.
How To Get To Simpang Palas Intersection
Simpang Palas is must-stop-and-check if you are on your way to Brunei.
But you can’t go there by bus. A bus from Limbang to Brunei won’t stop, and public transit is scarce in these rural parts.
The only way to get yourself to Simpang Palas is to drive. It’s about 25 km (15 miles) from the town of Limbang and 35km (21 miles) from the border with Brunei. If you are driving from Limbang to Brunei, it’s where you have to take a sharp right turn.
You can rent a car from the Limbang Airport and drive yourself, or get a ride from town. It’s about a 40-minute ride.
Tip: The intersection has a gravel parking lot with a convenience shop where you can top up your mobile phone credit for roaming in Brunei!