Indonesian durian is somewhat old-fashioned. It’s got a rustic charm, and like anything antiquated, a lot of confusion. Farmers like Haji Muttaqin Hasan are changing that. We met Hasan at his house surrounded by small black pots and a small forest of low durian trees. A fully loaded rambutan tree drooped outside the open windows. He ushered us out of the noon-day sun and into a wide, dimly lit room thick with the aroma of durian.
Smiling with a shy pride, Hasan brought out his durian trophies to show us.
But the smile disappeared as soon as I brought out the camera.
“He wants to be like respect,” explained our guide, Joko.
Indonesians, said Joko, often take photos really seriously. I couldn’t coax a smile out of him on camera, no matter how hard I tried to be sneaky. Which was too bad, because as soon as I put the camera down he simply beamed.
In 2015, Hasan won a national durian contest held by Trubus, an organization dedicated to improving the quality of Indonesian crops and especially durians.
Hasan was already well known within his community as a nurseryman. His business, called “Ginde Laras”, sells seedlings of four “superior” local cultivars, including his national champion.
He really wanted us to try it.
The season for it had nearly ended, but when Hasan found out we were on our way to Wonosobo, he put some fruits aside for us and waited, hoping they would still be good when we arrived.
They weren’t. We were a day late arriving to Wonosobo, having gotten distracted elsewhere, and although Hasan opened them all, he refused to let us taste it. “No good,” he mumbled, pushing them aside.
But with the generosity of the Javanese, he had laid out a banquet of his other varieties for us to taste.
Wonosobo Durian Varieties
Really, Hasan had laid out too many durians for us. We couldn’t eat them all. Some he had harvested early, others he’d allowed to fall. I had never tasted any of them before, although I’d heard of several.
And this is where I realized how confusing and tricky it is to track down specific durian varieties in Indonesia.
We started our banquet with Getuk, which is named for a type of gummy cake made out cassava cake and usually flavored with something odd like artificial strawberry or chocolate. I am not a very big fan of the cake-getuk, but this first durian ended up being my favorite of the spread.
Can you see that texture? It was fluffy and smooth, like a cool whip encased in a fragile skin. Think a really thin eclare, totally messy to eat. The flavor was fatty and rich, but not terribly sweet. It reminded me slightly of coconut milk. Luckily my compnions preferred the ones that came next:
The name is deceiving: this durian is pronounced “mareeecha,” and not the word Americans like to use to make fun of dumb nationalist pride. The name literally translates as “pepper,” because when allowed to get overripe this durian develops a slightly nasal spice like white pepper.
I thought it tasted too sweet and a bit flowery, like a butter-cream icing for a cake.
It didn’t taste like the Merica we had tasted the day before in Wilayu. In fact, I was pretty sure it was a different durian altogether.
Then Hasan brought out another durian. “What is it we asked?”
“Merica,” he replied. We looked at it doubtfully. No way.
Then he brought out the third one. What is this?
“Also Merica,” he said. And now we were stumped.
This last Merica had nothing in common with any of the previous Mericas. The flesh color was white, not yellow. It wasn’t sweet — in fact, it wasn’t all that good. What was going on?
Joko finally explained it to us.
In Indonesia, the difference between cloning/grafting a tree and planting a seed is not yet well understood by people in rural areas. The Wilayu Merica was a seedling of Hasan’s original Merica tree. The second durian he served us was also a seedling of the original Merica tree, as was the third weird white one.
And yet even though their genetic make-up was different, resulting in obviously different durians, they called them all Merica.
Hasan has a Beruk too, Joko offered helpfully. But it’s not the same tree as your favorite from Wilayu.
What was the point of that? I wondered. How could you ever track down your favorite durian if so many share the same name?
Hasan’s Champion Tree: Durian Lenger
That’s what Trubus is trying to fix with their durian contests and outreach program.
After the durian feast, Hasan walked us out into the durian forest behind the village to see his champion durian tree and show us how he clones the tree to sell in his nursery.
Now that his tree is a national champion, seedlings are in high demand.
Durian Lenger is actually his oldest tree, more than 100 years old. I wondered if that was partially why the durian won the contest. Old trees often produce really good fruit.
What I wasn’t expecting was for Hasan to begin climbing this massive beast of a tree, using grooves machete-ed into the trunk.
Marcotting or Air Layering Durian
He climbed part of the way up the tree and snapped off a branch. Then I realized what he was doing. He was reproducing his Durian Lenger by marcotting.
Here’s a cool thing about trees: they can grow roots from almost anywhere on the branch. Peel off the bark to reveal the wet smooth wood below and pack soil around it, and the tree will think its been stuck in the dirt and grow roots.
Then you can snip the branch off just below the roots and you have a whole new tree.
Trees are kind of like the frightening Replicators in Star Gate. Chop them into pieces and they just repopulate into new identical versons of themselves. At least, if you do it right.
Next, Hasan showed us how he was using the air-layered tree clones to merge them onto more adult trees, a type of cloning called “Approach grafting.”
Aren’t trees kind of scary?
He ties a pot of the marcotted Durian Lenger onto the branch of a mature tree, then cuts the bark off one side of the mature tree and one side of the marcotted seedling. Then he ties the two tightly together with tape in the hopes that they will join and he will have a new Durian Lenger tree.
How to Get To Visit Haji Hasan
Haji Hasan lives in Wediasin, a small neighborhood in the larger vicinity of Krasak Village. It’s just 11 km (7 miles) south of Wilayu Village on Hwy 9 leading to Banjarnegara.
Call 085228580113 to get in touch and ask to visit his nursery and Durian Lenger tree.