Every inspirational story starts with a mistake, and The Durian Story in Serangoon has it’s own thorny past and delicious dreams. I’m wishing them luck, cuz I want to go back and eat more of their Tekkah durian.
About Serangoon North
If you’re not from Singapore, it’s easy to imagine that Singapore is single, cohesive city. It’s not. It would be like thinking New York City is just Manhattan, forgetting that there’s also Queens and Brooklyn and the Bronx and a bunch of other boroughs I’m forgetting because I’m not from New York.
In Singapore, these boroughs are called “planning areas” and each has it’s own micro-cultural thing going on. It’s not often visited by
Serangoon was originally settled by Tamil Muslim traders from India who came to work in the brick kilns. The kilns were closed in 1860, and then Chinese gardeners began filling the area with huge vegetable gardens. Serangoon is sometimes referred to as “Little India.”
The Durian Story
The Durian Story is a small shop sandwiched on the ground floor of a tidy, white-washed HDB apartment flat. To the left is a Traditional Chinese Medicine treatment center, to the right a hair dresser. Above, 3 floors of apartments hosts all the durian-loving customers The Durian Story needs.
It’s a quiet, walkable, densely-packed little cosmopolitan center in a single building — Building 151 to be exact.
The shop is small, with just two tables and a bare, modern decor. The inside is air-conditioned — a rarity for durian stall everywhere. But on the afternoon we were there, the afternoon breeze was so pleasant we opted for the outside seating area.
Few people filled the seats, although there was a line at the cashier. Almost everyone was coming to get durian, pack it, and take it home to eat in their apartment. I guess if you live close by, getting durian is like picking up some extra hummus on the way home from work.
The kakis, durian servers, worked steadily to crack open durians, but didn’t have the urgency some of the other durian stalls I’ve been to in Singapore. Some of them can be empty of customers, but the servers act like they’re so harried and overworked they can’t even make eye contact.
Maybe it’s part of the Durian Story motto — Keep Calm and Jiak Durian.
“Jiak” means eat in the the local Hokkien dialect. I certainly felt calm in the dappled light on the quiet street as we waited for Jonathan to arrive.
The Story of The Durian Story
I bet owner Jonathan Tee and managing operator Jovias Tan didn’t always feel very calm when they were starting The Durian Story.
Every inspirational story starts with a mistake, and Jonathan admits he made a big one, financially speaking, when he decided to throw his money into backing a new durian shop in 2016.
He’d met an up-and-coming durian kaki who seemed to have a super talent for picking good durian. Jonathan was impressed. He hadn’t met many in Singapore who were able to meet his somewhat finicky durian standards.
Jonathan’s father taught his son early how to recognize different durian varieties, predominantly the varieties available in the 1980’s — D101, or D24, and D13. Back then sold, 3 durians sold for $10 SGD, or if it was an expensive one, $5 per durian. It didn’t matter so much if someone sold you a bad one, because durian was cheap.
When he got older, Jonathan added newer varieties like Golden Phoenix, Green Bamboo (Tekkah) and Musang King to his durian repertoire.
By his twenties, he and his buddies were durian addicts. They’d cruise Singapore hunting durian, laying down a thousand Sing dollars every season for the good stuff. But it was a gamble whether they’d buy bliss or disappointment. He became frustrated with durian sellers who didn’t seem to have the nose or attention to detail to provide the kind of quality he craved.
Jonathan says he thinks of eating durian as a form of art, like tasting wine. He even considered setting up his own durian shop, but didn’t feel confident in his own durian-picking abilities.
So when he met the durian kaki with the good nose, he became hooked on that particular durian shop. Eventually, the kaki told Jonathan his dream: to open his own durian shop.
Jonathan, maybe a bit inebriated on durian, decided to help out. They went into a partnership on a new durian store in Singapore, one unlike any of the other old-school stalls.
The new durian store was in a clean, well-lit cafe with big windows and modern, minimalist decor. Air-conditioning kept their customers cool. The shop quickly became crowded with millennials and the Insta crowd. It seemed like a success.
But within a year, the new shop ran into financial problems. The durian kaki, while having a good nose, was not so good at running the books. In fact, he was fudging them.
Jonathan had a choice: to close the shop and lose everything, or to take over and try again.
What would you durian lovers do? Probably the same as Jonathan.
He decided to try again.
In 2017, the shop re-opened in Serangoon as The Durian Story: Once Upon a Thorn.
And if you’re lucky, like us, you’ll be there when Jonathan is picking durians. He’s starting to feel more confident with his abilities, and if the Tekkah he chose for us is any sign, he has a good nose of his own.
Durians at The Durian Story
When you arrive, you will be greeted with the day’s menu and prices, neatly printed on laminated sheets of paper so the prices can be wiped off each day and updated.
Beside each durian variety, Jonathan has written tasting notes and descriptions to help his customers figure out which durian best suits their tastes.
We just asked the manager, Jovias, for his suggestion that day. When I told him I liked bitter, the bitterer the better, he suggested I go for a Tekkah that day, as the Pahang durians with his more pungent grades of Musang King (like Black Gold) hadn’t yet arrived yet. Jonathan says that the Black Gold Musang Kings are so bitter some of his customers complain the taste is like medicine.
Durians sourced from Johor arrive around 2pm, while durian sourced from Pahang arrive after 7pm. Plan your trip to The Durian Story accordingly.
So we’d been eating a lot of durian in Singapore. I was kind of almost going to say I didn’t want much durian — at least not if all they had was Musang King.
“You have to try this Tekkah, it’s really good,” Jonathan wheedled. I didn’t take much convincing — Tekkah, also known as Bamboo Leg or Green Bamboo or Thrakka or Kaki Buloh or another Hokkien name I can never remember, is one of my all-time favorite durians. Jonathan says it’s one of his favorites too 👊
It was better than good – sticky coffee caramelized into fatty pudding with just the right amount of burnt sugar sweetness.
Tekkah needs to be fresh to be this good, because it goes bubbly and oniony pretty quickly, so I knew this one had to be just hours old. That’s quite a feat for a Singapore durian seller.
King of Kings – Musang King
Jovias also tried to tempt us with a lower grade of Musang King – King of Kings – which he was rapidly opening and wrapping for customers, but once we’d gotten a mouthful of Tekkah that’s all we could take.
Musang King is rarely my favorite, but Singapore has opened my eyes to the fact that not all Musang King are created equal. Now that Musang King is in such demand, more farmers than ever are planting it.
It means the market is saturated with Musang Kings from younger trees (less than 15 years old) or farms recently converted to durian where the soil was stripped by palm oil plantations, giving the Musang King a sweeter, tackier, less rich flavor.
Jovias and Jonathan encouraged us to wait until their Black Gold Musang King arrived from Pahang, but we didn’t have the time this trip. Maybe next time.
Cuz my durian story’s not over, and fingers crossed The Serangoon Durian Story will be making new chapters for a long, long time.
My Book For Sale at The Durian Story
The Durian Story is currently stocking my story too — for now, they have a limited supply of my latest book, The Durian Tourist’s Guide to Penang.
Jonathan says some of his favorite durians come from Penang, and he wishes he could stock them at his shop (Penang is too far away and it’s durians are too fragile to reliably get them to Singapore).
So when you go to pick up your durian supply, you can grab a guide to your next durian vacation too. Just tell Jonathan you found him through this blog for a $1 discount on every copy of my book you buy there. Thanks for your support!
How To Visit The Durian Story in Serangoon
The Durian Story is open daily during the durian season, typically May to late August and November to January, from 1PM to 10PM. Come after 2pm for fresh Johor durian and after 7pm for fresh Pahang durian. Check their Facebook page to find out which varieties are currently available.
Address: Serangoon North Avenue 2 Blk 151, #01-11, Singapore 550151
Tel: +65 87976699
Use this map to find The Durian Story or to navigate to other durian hotspots in Singapore! Click the pins to find links to other blog posts about each location.