Though there are, at this writing, only three or four weeks left to play in this year’s Penang Durian Season, if you’re reading these words from somewhere – anywhere – in the world, it’d be worth your effort to get your dimpled ass down here to experience the utterly sinful delights of this year’s crop. When you arrive, you can use this little guide to help find the most wickedly delish fruits the city has to offer.
First up, a word to the wise. There are Durian being sold everywhere – usually hanging daintily by strings — as though their contents were of the same import as those of the Pulp Fiction briefcase (or what) — from stalls with big banners advertising “Balik Pulau #1 Best” or similar, and listing off the world-famous varieties on offer.
These prize-winning varieties don’t come cheap, however, and like as not you’ll be underwhelmed with the quality – not to mention that sitting by the side of the road with traffic roaring by at top volume is not exactly the most scintillating of dining experiences. Moreover, without getting in to the various means and methods by which shysterism pervades the Durian trades, let’s just say that it’s not uncommon for tourists to be taken advantage of.
If you want to try out the primo varieties, I bid you make your way, instead, to Bao Sheng farm, where you’ll be able to enjoy freshly-harvested, organically grown Durian from sixty-year-old trees, in all the important varieties the island has to offer, served up by a master of the trade in a beautiful, peaceful, and congenial on-farm setting. I’ve written previously about the wonders of Bao Sheng – here, here, and here. The prices have risen a bit this year; but just go ahead and — at least once — pony up the 165 RM for the full-day all-you-can-guzzle pass to all of the farm’s fruit (there are less gluttonous packages available as well). You’ll be very glad you did.
But there’s another side to the Penang Durian experience – the so-called Kampung Durian. These are fruits have fallen from un-domesticated trees, grown directly from seed without human meddling. There are tonnes of them on the island, and they can usually be had for very cheap. The rub is that the flesh-to-seed ratio is often quite small, and that you never know what you’re going to taste – could be complete rubbish, or could be a new portal into a previously undreamt-of headspace…or something in-between.
For only a few ringgits per each, it’s quite worth it to roll the dice and see what you get. This year, however, there’s much less uncertainty, as the Kampungs have gone wild with flavour. It’s almost impossible to find a bad one: In three weeks here, I’ve cracked open something on the order of one hundred of them, and have only thrown out maybe two or three. Everything else has been great to excellent to special to mind-blowing.
Here are my four favourite George Town purveyors, arranged chronologically. There are likely to be very many more quality players throughout the city and the island — my daily haunts have not yet extended to so wide a radius. A good bet is to look for sellers that are so mobbed by customers that they’ve not had time to even brush the leaves and other debris off the fruit yet. (But don’t worry – the other customers always get a kick out of seeing a white mofo shopping for Durians, and will be very friendly indeed.)
Location: The intersection of Carnarvon and Campbell streets, kitty-corner from the market building.
Timing: 6:00 AM. By 6:30, the pickings are already slim.
I’ve limited experience with this seller – pre-dawn is just a little too early for me to be getting my Durian on – but the prices are very cheap, the quality is very good, and, at 6:00 in the AM you know it’s about as fresh as it fuckin’ gets.
Location: Chowrasta Market. Heading down Kangsar from Campbell street, they’re on the left, just past the market building.
Timing: At daybreak, they’re still getting set up. At 7:30, there’ll be lots. By 8:30, you’ll be sifting through the dregs.
In my estimation, the go-to Durian seller in the city. Expect to pay a little bit more than at the other places listed here (say, six to eight Ringgit per biji, rather than two to four – or even more if you spring for a premium variety), but the Durian here is of extremely high quality. Honestly, I’d say they even rival Bao Sheng’s. Check it out:
It’s kind of a madhouse there; but just be polite, be patient, and have fun looking for those hidden gems!
There are five or six other outfits set up on both Kangsar and Chowrasta streets – but they’re all pretty mediocre quality at inflated prices. Except, there are a couple of good ones right at the intersection of Campbell and Kangsar; but they operate so irregularly that it seems pointless to even list them here. But never fear — if you arrive to Chowrasta too late, simply turn around and head back over to…
Location: Just down Carnarvon from Chulia street; right next to the fruit shoppe.
Timing: They’ll arrive between 9:30 and 10:00.
A very nice husband-and-wife team. Last year, he was selling Kampungs for one or two Ringgit per biji, this year they’re three or four – but the quality is much more consistently outstanding this year than last. There’re usually three piles: One of freshly harvested fruit, one of day-old leftovers, and one of premium varieties. Sometimes, he manages to put little signs showing the pricing structure; but usually he’s too swamped to get around to it. Arrive early if you want to get in on the fresh pile — and be prepared to field some freely-offered advice from the patrons of the cafe located right behind.
Location: Across the street from the evening flea market, right at the corner of Armenian and Acheh.
Timing: They’ll be set up and selling by 3:00, but a motorcycle bearing freshly harvested fruits usually arrives at about 4:00.
The cheapest Durian of all. I once picked out seven very nice-looking fruits, and was so scandalised when they asked for ten ringgit that I gave them fifteen instead. Excellent quality Durian here, usually incredibly creamy. Also, taking an afternoon meal can be a nice change-of-pace from all the early-morning options.
I’ve perused about a million stalls in George Town, and those are my four faves. If there are some must-try places I’ve missed, lemme know, and I’ll add ‘em to the list! Here are some additional tips…
Selection: The more recently fallen from the tree, the better. Look for fruits whose stems are nice and full and still green, with some stickiness, on the top (or, at least, some stickiness remaining when using your fingernail to chip away at the side of the stem). Then, smell all around the fruit – especially nearer the top than the bottom. The more fragrant and aromatic it smells, the better. This is a learn-from-experience kind of deal. Luckily though, as I say, it’s very tough to go wrong this year. Just remember that if the stems are all brown and shriveled up and/or the fruits are being held together with rubber bands, you’re almost certainly looking at day-old (or older) specimens. If that’s all that’s regionally available, then the awful truth is that it’s either too early or too late in the season to be eating Durian, and you should be looking for other, in-season, fruits to eat instead.
As far as worms go, one might be inclined to be a bit squeamish when noting a hole of just the right size…
But the reality of it is, dem worms have pretty good taste! Usually, only one or two seeds will turn out to be inedible-like. Just eat around the compromised areas, and give the rest to the crows (see below). Not saying that one should necessarily go seeking out fruits with wormholes in them; but if you find one that otherwise seems like it could be a keeper, neither should one be scared off by the presence of same. One could ask the seller for a markdown – but the prices are already so cheap, it hardly seems worth the bother.
I wouldn’t, personally, ever argue with the seller over prices. But, don’t let them talk you out of a particular fruit that you want to eat, ‘cause they won’t necessarily know what they’re on about. Here’s a little anecdote I shared a few weeks ago, to give an idea of what I mean:
My favourite grower from last year (apart from the almighty Bao Sheng, natch) was a little later than everybody else on the giddyup this season — only began trading in the Good Stuff at the middle part of last week. I’m able to report, however that as of to-day, they have officially hit their stride. For the next weeks, lo do I worship at their altar!
Though, they don’t necessarily know the power of their own produce: They were loathe to permit me to purchase a particular fruit this very morning (not the one pictured here) on the grounds that it was, they told me, shite. I stuck to my guns, insisting that it smelt quite heavenly to me. Finally, they threw it in for free, along with an admonition to not come crying to them and cetera and cetera. Can’t deny having felt a little intimidated, being dressed down in front of a big crowd and all. But we Ang Mo aren’t quite as stoopid, Durianically speaking, as the Malaysians delight in believing us to be. It turned out to be one of the best Durians of this already-legendary season.
So there’s your Durian Tip o’ the day: When your nose is recording signals of deliciousity, don’t let an authority figure frighten you into believing otherwise. The nose knows! (This tip is much easier to follow, of course, when the fruit in question may be obtained free of charge…)
Also, you must not allow them to package your Durians up in a plastic fucking bag. Just do not give in to the Asians’ plastic mania. Simply throw a couple of t-shirts into your carry bag, wrap the shirts around the Durians, place them inside the bag, and away you go.
When To Eat: Immediatement! Durian are best et as soon as possible after harvest. As time passes, the flavours gradually lose their potency and nuance. So, put it on the gallop directly from the market to the below-mentioned Esplanade seaside wall, and make your meal straight away.
Where To Eat: Sitting on the seawall at the Esplanade, enjoying the peace and almost-motorcycle-less quiet, surveying the ocean’s wondrous and always-changing moods, basking in the perfectness of the cooling sea-breeze, imbibing the finest Durian on the planet…that’s the fuckin’ great life in Penang!! Any flesh which is too underripe or too overripe or too wormy for your liking may be shared with the ever-present Ravens, whom will be pestering you throughout your meal. It’s all in good fun, but keep attention – ‘cause those fucking little bastards will steal your Durian from you if you let your mind to wandering.
Opening The Durian: The proprietor of the aforementioned Bao Sheng farm offers a quick tutorial near the end of this clip. Basically, the trick is to find the seams running from the bottom of the fruit, begin to unzip them by twisting with a knife or other sharp object, and then pull the fruit apart into two halves. If your hands are sensitive to the thorns’ twang, it’s perfectly acceptable to use one of the t-shirts in which you wrapped your Durian for transporting from the market as a bit of cushioning.
Where To Drink Purified Water: There are at least four water kiosks in downtown: One at Chulia and Chulia, one at Chulia and Pintal Tali, one on Muntri a bit west of Love Lane, and one on Ah Quee a bit east of Kapitan Keling mosque. At twenty cents for a litre-and-a-half, it’s a little more expensive than Thailand’s kiosks; but very great value nonetheless.
Where To Drink Coconut Water: The best and cheapest operator is right at the corner of Carnarvon and Chulia. Usually sets up around Noon, but seems to take Mondays and Fridays off. There’s also a stall in Little India, on Lebuh Pasar, as well as two or three at the Queen Street Ramadan Bazaar (I believe Ramadan extends through the sixteenth of July this year). Also, the guy running the burger stall on Chulia sells them in the evenings.
Where To Sleep: Hotel Noble — also located on Lebuh Pasar, but on the other side of Jalan Kapitan Keling — is known as a Durian-friendly hotel. It seems to be a little bit less Durian-friendly this year than years past, when there were a handful of fruitarians living there. They seem to have all flown the coop, though the hotel is still largely populated by European expats. Very friendly staff, very clean premises, spacious and shockingly quiet fan (or air-con) rooms, perfect location, good value. The only downsides are that the Internet connection is very slow (though also very reliable), and there are no screens on the windows, so if the mosquitoes are very active, it can make for some itchy evenings. (Knock wood, they’re not a major nuisance at the current time.)
Shit, this write-up is a lot longer than I expected it to be. Hopefully somebody will find it helpful – if not this year, then possibly next. Just make sure to, by-hook-or-by-crook, get your dimpled ass to Penang and enjoy those motherfuckin’ Durians!