The first time I went to the large, fruit-heavy Serian Market near Kuching, Sarawak it was a complete accident. I did not know the Serian Market existed.
It was 2012, at the end of my first trip to Southeast Asia. We were staying in Kuching, and found out a Rafflesia was in bloom down in Guning Gading National Park, about an hour and a half directly east of us. From Kuching’s Central Bus Station, we bought our tickets and were promptly guided to the wrong bus by a very friendly if not-so-helpful ticket manager. By the time we figured out we were driving in the wrong direction, the bus driver wouldn’t let us off.
So Serian it was. An hour and a half later, we found ourselves in front of a large durian statue. It may have been the wrong place, but it was the right place for durian and exotic fruit hunters to visit!
I sucked on the small, super sweet seeds of pedalai, a wild jackfruit relative, all the way back to Kuching.
Since then, I’ve returned to Serian a bunch of times. Serian prides itself on it’s durian. That’s why it has not one, but TWO durian statues in the town. There’s one as you enter the town from Kuching, and another in the roundabout in front of the market.
Serian actually refers to both the small town with the famous fruit market AND the eponymous district that borders Indonesia. The closest border crossing, Entikong, is just a 45-minute drive from Serian Town, and from there you can cross into the fertile durian lands of Balai Karangan or onwards to Pontianak or Putussibau.
This proximity to Indonesia means that a lot of the jungle produce you see in Serian Market was actually packed in from the the jungle on the Indonesian side.
It also means that beyond Serian Town, the area is lush and remote, a bit surprising considering the region is just 40 miles (65km) outside of Kuching, Sarawak’s largest city. The district is still mostly inhabited by the Bidayuh, a Dayak tribe who traditionally used ancient durian trees to mark their territory.
You’ll see them selling durians in their woven rattan backpacks, tambok, along the roadsides. There is usually a big group of them on the corner where you turn off to go to Thomas’s Farm.
Their longhouses are close enough to Kuching that a lot of tour companies run overnight cultural Longhouse Tours to this area, but it’s also fairly easy to visit a longhouse on your own either for the day or overnight.
Just keep in mind these are not walking distance to the Serian Market, so if the market is your destination goal, you’ll want to stay somewhere more nearby.
Where To Stay in Serian Town
Serian has few options for accommodation. It’s a smallish town scarcely popular with tourists, who — if they visit at all — are whisked through the town on some packaged cultural program. There are several longhouse homestays available on Airbnb that independent travelers can book.
Even my group’s decision to stay at Thomas’s Durian Farmstay one night (100RM per night) and at the Ranchan Waterfall Park another night, where we got a 2-bedroom house to ourselves for 80RM per night, wouldn’t have been that practical if we didn’t have our own transportation (I rented a car).
My friends Justyna and Simon ended up at the KC Inn just outside the downtown area, about a 10-minute walk (700 meters) from Serian Market. As of writing, the KC Inn costs 65 RM ($17USD) per night for two persons. The rooms are large and have good windows, although they reported greasy fumes from the restaurant downstairs wafted into their room during the lunch hour.
About the Serian Market
In many ways it’s your very typical Bornean Market.
It’s an indoor two-story building open to the air, crisscrossed by rows of tables into a labyrinth of homemade foods, fruits, vegetables, and handmade crafts that spill into the aisles.
Veggies take up most of the floor space in the indoor area. Fruits line the perimeters. Up the stairs there’s a food court, which I didn’t explore since it didn’t interest me, but the stairwell did make a great place to get away from the shoulder-bumping hustle and bustle of the market to people-watch and take photos.
The market is open 365 days of the year, even on Christmas! Fewer stall-owners may show up on big holidays, like Chinese New Year or Good Friday (remember, most Bidayuh people are Christians), but there’s almost always somebody here selling fruits and vegetable.
Just be warned that if you come too late in the day you’ll likely find just the stalls on the periphery open, the rest of the market shut down for the day, the stalls draped in tarps and the great hall echoing with the silence of your footsteps.
So make an effort to arrive before 11AM.
Unlike other markets, Serian Market doesn’t re-open entirely in the evenings. More stalls may open up, but in general the best time to go is in the morning.
There is a separate night market (pasar malam) in the parking lot nearby, which focuses mostly on cooked cuisine.
Jungle Produce At Serian Market
Serian Market is likely one of the best markets in Sarawak for jungle fruits and vegetables (my other top pick is Sibu Market). The only market in Kuching that comes close to having the awesome selection of what you’ll find here is MCJ.
But one of my favorite things about market-hunting is that you never know what you’re gonna find! When you go, you may find something completely different than what I found on the couple of days I was scrounging around Serian in January, 2017.
I didn’t manage to find another sample of pedalai on this trip, but here are some of my favorite discoveries:
Engkala (Litsea garciae)
Engkala is one of my favorite fruits that I hate to eat.
It’s just so pretty! The pink, silky color is intriguing, making it look like a giant jelly-bean with a cute little elfin hat, but be careful.
For one, they’re not sweet. Inside, the pale-green to white flesh is creamy and smooth, and is the reason it’s sometimes called “Butter Fruit.”
For two, they’ll burn your mouth and throat if you don’t eat them right, a mystery as yet unexplained by science (at least what I can find).
Even this study, Chemical Composition of 6 Litsea Species in Malaysia, doesn’t explain or mention the well-known itchy or burning sensation you can get from eating these.
To eat them without hurting yourself, either lightly blanch them in boiling water or bruise them gently and let sit for 10 minutes. You can roll them between your hands or use a stick to whack them around a little.
I still don’t like them, even after beating. But I’ll taste one or two, just because they’re so cute.
I was happy to see Durio kutejensis at the market, because it meant I hadn’t totally missed the durian season.
Durio kutejensis is the waxy, fruity, sweetie durio that doesn’t really taste like durian. Or smell like durian. Or really look like durian, except for it’s nubby little thorns. It’s a durian without the stinky kick or hazards of hurting yourself. Kind of boring really. But also tasty.
Kutejensis is the last of the durian species to ripen, and heralds the end of the fruiting season. They’re not as common in Serian, but you can usually find some in late December or January.
Cempedak or Cempejak?
Whatever this was — a seriously sweet and floral cempejak, or a super juicy and smooth jackfruit — it was addictive delicious.
There are such things as hybrids between cempedaks (Artocarpus integer) and jackfruits (Artocarpus heterophyllus), but I don’t personally know how to confirm which one this was.
Cempedaks are another fruit that typically come into season right at the tail end of the fruit season, as Durio zibethinus wanes and pulasans and Durio kutejensis come into their own.
Rambai (Baccaurea motleyana)
By the time I saw these I was bored of rambai. They were everywhere in Sarawak. Not that they weren’t still delicious, and not that I didn’t still buy a sprig to suck on in the car on the way home, but seriously. Everywhere.
What I like about rambai is the texture and their sweet-sour nature. They have the fluffy, gummy, springy texture of a marshmallow that will drive you crazy if you like to chomp and chew on things. Don’t try to chew these — they will never break down. All you can do is suck on them and then swallow them whole, seeds and all.
They’re very small and more-ish, meaning you can always just have one more, and make a great car snack for your epic road trip into the durian-lands on the Indonesian side.
Tampoi (Baccaurea Bracteata)
Yes, in the far upper corner of that rambai photo you spotted tampoi, one of my favorite fruits to suck on in Borneo because they’re sweet and sour, and I love a good floral fruit with an acid finish.
Tampoi are relatives of rambai and have a similar marshmallowy texture but are larger and have a little bit more to eat. They look a bit like mangosteens when you open them up, but with a larger inedible core in the center.
My friend Fabian says that these are called tampoi, while the white-fleshed version are called buat. I didn’t see them on this trip to Serian.
Pulasan (Nephelium mutabile)
I never tire of these concord-grape tasting rambutan relatives. They have a thick, foamy skin that you can easily break open by twisting the pulasans inbetween your hands.
They’re juicier than rambutans, with a softer more translucent flesh that tastes slightly musky and sweet.
They come into season a bit after rambutans, so you won’t usually see them until the end of the season fruiting season, like when I visited.
Asam Paya (Eleiodoxa conferta)
These snakefruit-look-alikes barely count as edible fruits in my book. They’re sour. Mouthwatering, eyewatering, lip puckering sour.
Taste these these if you liked Warhead candies as a child because you found masochism amusing. Or you like playing cruel jokes on your friends.
Or maybe you have a miracle berry handy.
They’re so sour the only thing to do with them is cook them or use them as a substitute for sour tamarind or lime in salads or ulam. They would probably go well in a dressing on one of these ferns:
Paku Kubok (Nephrolepis acutifolia)
These fuzzy fiddle-head ferns caught my attention right away, because I love edible ferns. There are a number of species in Sarawak that are regularly eaten, but I hadn’t seen these before (later I found them at Stutong Market in Kuching).
Also known as Paku Ubin, this fern grows alongside other more popular edible ferns, but isn’t eaten as commonly because it tastes bitter and tends to exude a mucilaginous film when boiled or stir-fried. It’s soaked to get rid of the hairs and then blanched and eaten as a side-salad.
One of my favorite blogs, Malaysian Vegetarian Food, has some good recipes for using this fern.
Paku Midin (Stenochlaena palustris)
Midin is considered one of the national foods of Sarawak and is a lot easier to find than Paku Kubin — maybe because it stays crunchy when cooked, and doesn’t get slimy.
It’s popular stir-fried with garlic and belecan, shrimp paste, or eaten fresh in a vinegary Thai-style salad.
Here’s a PDF with a lot more info for you plant nerds out there.
Straw Mushroom (Volvariella volvacea)
In Serian I took my first up-close and personal look at Straw Mushrooms, a cultivated mushy that’s super common in Borneo but somehow I never actually stopped and looked at them. Maybe because they’re not instant-gratification friendly. Unlike a cempedak, you can’t just find it, get excited, and put them in your mouth.
I mean, I guess you could. But really?
The earliest ever reference to Straw Mushrooms is in China around 900 B.C., according to this sweet article on the Origin and Early Development of Straw Mushroom (oh the things I do with my free time). They were likely introduced to Borneo by Chinese pirates forever ago, the same ones who brought the Native Dayak people tattoos and rice wine.
They’re called Straw Mushrooms because they’re typically grown on dried out rice paddy straw.
You’ll see them at like every market in Borneo, but like me, you might not pay attention to them. Now you will. You’re welcome.
Getting To Serian Market
The fastest and easiest way to get to Serian Market is to rent a car. Really — just do it. You can rent a car on Easybook for 80RM per day and have them deliver the car directly to your Airbnb or hotel. Then off you go for a day of fruit hunting. If you want you can hit up every fruit market on the way to Serian — and there are a lot.
But if you insist on public transportation, you can take a bus from Kuching’s Central Bus Station, about 5 miles outside the city. An Uber to the Bus Station will cost you about 12RM, and the bus ticket to Serian is 10-15RM. Buses depart nearly every hour starting at 7:00AM.
Just make sure you get on the right bus!