Balik Pulau, Malaysia — Every summer, farmer Durian Seng clambers into the back of his van, removes the seats and lines the space with banana leaves. Then he crams the vehicle with 300 durians from his orchard on the Malaysian island of Penang and drives inland to Kuala Lumpur, where his biggest client, a high-powered communications firm, uses the fruit as gifts for its most-valued customers.
Riding with Seng in the now-empty van, I try to imagine what 300 durians would smell like as he takes me up the winding, tree-lined roads to his orchards here, on the western coast of the island.
Would it be intoxicating or noxious?
That is the question one inevitably faces when dealing with the durian, that spiky, football-size tropical fruit whose notoriously pungent odor provokes only strong reactions: utter disgust or passionate obsession.
Durian is more than just a fruit, you see. It is a polarizing issue, spawning endless, heated debate. To some, it reeks like a sewage tank or rotting onions. Even in Southeast Asia, where the fruit is native, durian is banned on the subway and in public buildings because of its controversial scent. Anthony Bourdain, host of the travel and food show “No Reservations,” declares that durian will make your breath “smell as if you’d been French-kissing your dead grandmother.”
But those who hold the durian sacred describe its aroma in terms of deep caramel tones and hints of vanilla. They talk rapturously of the way it progresses from sweet to bitter and back to sweet in your mouth, where the taste can linger for minutes after each bite.
When I was growing up in Toronto, durian was a rare treat in my family for many reasons: its limited availability after we left Vietnam in 1984, its price and the richness of the fruit. It was always a feast to be shared, not just because the fragrance made it impossible to devour in secret, but also because its consumption involved an elaborate production. Opening a durian requires skill.
Over the centuries, the durian has become a cultural icon, swathed in folklore and mystery. It is purported to be an aphrodisiac; as the Malay saying goes, “When durians fall, sarongs go up.” According to Eastern medicine, durian is a heat-associated food that shouldn’t be consumed in large amounts, so a popular custom is to drink water from the durian husk with a pinch of salt to balance out the heat, or to pair durian with cooler fruits, such as mangosteen. And because of its high fat, sugar and protein content, durian is often the forbidden fruit of the aging or ailing.
Nowadays, the growing popularity of, and controversy around, durian has spread to such areas as northern Australia, Madagascar, Hawaii and Florida. Yet few places honor the fruit as they do in Penang, where the combination of mountains and ocean air has made the island particularly suitable for growing the fruit.
Penang locals frequently scorn the ubiquitous Thai durian, which is often picked for mass exportation before it’s ripe. (Thailand is the largest exporter of durian to countries around the world, including the United States, and even Malaysia when the local durian is out of season.) In Penang, farmers prefer to let the durian fall naturally from the tree when ripe, setting up nets around their orchards to catch the fruit before it hits the ground. Over the decades, local farmers have propagated varieties unique to the island, such as Ang Bak, Red Prawn, Hor Lor and D-11, with flesh color ranging from the most common yellow to white, orange and red.
Even among those in Penang, hardly anyone could be more devoted to the durian than a man who has been given the name of the fruit itself.
For the past few years, Chang Teik Seng, or Durian Seng, as he is called (“hardly anyone knows my actual first name anymore,” he explains), has been on a one-man crusade to cultivate the appreciation of durian among locals and foreigners alike.
“People don’t like durian because they’ve never had good, fresh durian,” Seng says as we chat during the off-season at his mountainside home, which has been converted into a durian paradise, with a back patio, a pool and two rentable bungalows looking out onto the verdant valley below. (The cabins were built after a visit from several European raw-food-diet acolytes, who stayed at Seng’s orchard for a week in a tent just to eat durian.)
Seng is one of nine children descended from longtime durian farmers in Penang. Dressed that day in shorts and a polo shirt, his hair in a buzz cut, he didn’t look much like a canny 50-year-old businessman. He seemed exactly like the kind of middle-aged Chinese uncle who would offer to drive you out to his durian orchard and spend an afternoon sipping tea with you.
All of his brothers have continued the family craft of growing durian, but only Seng does so exclusively, devoting every bit of his inherited farmland to a fruit that’s in season on the island only from June to August. And only Seng has willingly lost money in the business. Although most of his competitors sell their durians by the kilo, Seng is known on the island for his all-out durian buffets, which his family points to as his downfall. Paying rates starting at 35 ringgit (about $12) per person, Seng’s customers can eat as much durian as they’re able, all the while getting lessons on durian selection, varieties and tastes.
His brothers laugh at him, and his father worries about him. But Seng remains unfazed.
“If you educate people, you can’t cheat them, and that makes it hard to sell them bad durians,” Seng admits. “But I treat it like a cause. I work for the durian.”
In most parts of the world, durian might be considered fresh if it hasn’t been frozen. But in Penang, durian is considered fresh only if it fell from the tree that morning. And even that is not good enough for the most discriminating connoisseurs, such as Seng, who claim that in the hour it takes to transport the durian from orchard to town market, the fruit has already lost some of its fragrance. That is why, in recent years, a few other farmers have started inviting people out to the orchard for on-the-spot tastings.
When durian season is in full swing, Seng fills his patio with tables and chairs and an LCD screen that shows an informational presentation on durians. He teaches his customers to distinguish the fruit of younger trees, which is sweeter, creamier and gummier in texture, from that of more mature trees, which is so strong that it tastes almost like cheese. Durian from some of the oldest trees is so concentrated that it’s mostly bitter and can make your tongue go numb for about 10 seconds at first tasting.
Despite his lofty-sounding ideas, Seng’s dream does have a practical strategy. “As people become connoisseurs, they eat only the best quality, and so they eat less,” he says. Seng’s customers from Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore are no amateurs, and they come all the way here just to sample his best durians: “In the long term, there will be more high-end customers, and I’ll make a profit.”
These days, access to the finest durian has become a status symbol in Southeast Asia. Last year, tycoon Stanley Ho of Macau sent a private jet (durians are not allowed on commercial flights) to Singapore just to retrieve 88 durians (a lucky number in Asian cultures) valued at a total of about $1,500.
Until he reaches such lucrative heights, Seng is committed to growing the finest durians he can. I notice that his orchard still bears traces of the last few rambutan trees he has just chopped down to make room for new durian saplings. For now, he is content to spread the love of durians to all those who will come, believing it’s only a matter of time before durian fever will overtake them.
“When you are this close, you’ll get affected,” Seng says. “When it’s in season, you’ll get affected. Whether you like it or don’t like it, one day you will take a bite and be affected.”
Wan, a freelance writer in Washington, can be reached through her Web site, www.juliewan.com.