SINGAPORE - Durian eating has come a long way since the '80s when vacuum packing was unheard of and the highlight of the year was a family drive to Malaysia to gorge oneself silly at makeshift stalls set up along the trunk roads. At the time, people would pay a premium for the fleshy, small-seeded (the smaller the more expensive) Tiger Hill from Penang, Muar or Segamat - priced much higher than 'cultivars' (cross bred species created by growers) usually found in three-for-$10 bargain baskets for those willing to take a punt on their quality.
Today, durian eating has reached an unprecedented level of connoisseurship, especially as cultivars evolved from being 'luck of the draw' specimens in the '80s into successful hybrids such as D13, D24, XO, Jin Feng, Ang Hei, and D197 - better known as Mao Shan Wang - the reigning king of the crop. The Singaporean love for durian has also spawned a fast-expanding foodie sub-culture with insider merchant information, durian eating tours, dedicated websites and blogs contributing to the movement.
One such blogger is Tommy Lim, creator of pricklysensations.blogspot.com, who is a walking repository of information about the spiky fruit. "It takes more than 10 years for a durian sapling to produce fruit of a decent enough quality for consumption," he explains. "The location of the tree, the nature of the soil, and the weather before the harvest are crucial to the quality of the crop."
Mr Lim explains that older trees yield more mature fruit. "You can tell the age of the tree from the look of the flesh. Older fruit has a flesh surface that is slightly wrinkled, smaller seeds and a smell that is pungent but mellow." As a rule of thumb, the older the tree, the better the fruit.
Also, finding a reliable durian-seller isn't as easy as you might think as the dynamics of the business have changed since the '80s. Poh Lai Wan, whose family was a major durian wholesaler and distributor, recalls how Waterloo Street was a major auction hub for plantation owners. "The durian plantation owners would only deal direct with a few distributors," she says. "The Waterloo Street auctions would attract both durian sellers and the public, who would come in lorries and cars and drive away with huge rattan baskets full of durians."
Things changed when the distribution centre was demolished in the mid 1980s; they then had to hire lorries to bring their fruits to individual stalls throughout the island. So any merchant who wanted access to the best quality would need to build up a strong relationship with a plantation owner, says Ms Poh's husband, Chia Boon Huat.
He says that even with the same cultivar of durian, each plantation produces fruit of different quality because of numerous factors, one of which is the pedigree of the sapling. "As the crop from each plantation is limited, the seller who has had a long business relationship with the plantation would often be given the exclusive rights to the durian," says Mr Chia, who now sells durians in Pasir Ris with his wife.
Although durians have become available throughout the year thanks to commercial cultivation, aficionados believe that the best season falls in the hottest and driest months between June and August. In line with the season, we bring you an insider's guide to high-end artisanal durians.
12 Jalan Tampang, Sembawang Garden Arcade
9344 1512 / 9759 8265
Top picks: Lao Tai Po and Black Pearl
Yap Kean Seng, or Ah Seng as everyone knows him, has sold durian for 33 years. Ah Seng moved his shop from its previous location in Yishun to where it is today four years ago. Loud and animated, the 62-year-old is best known for giving away free durians on his birthday.
Lao Tai Po or "Grand Old Lady" is named after an old lady who grew them in Yong Peng, Johor. Ah Seng started selling the durian some 20 years ago, but it was far from the coveted cultivar it is today. "The quality was inconsistent as the fruits came from a young tree. I had to give it away free to promote it. Yet demand was very low at first," he says. Today the trees have matured and yield top quality fruit that many reckon to rival the taste of Mao Shan Wang, making Ah Seng famous since he now owns the best connection to the super crop. Lao Tai Po belies its name, boasting thick yellow flesh that is superbly creamy, with small seeds.
Another top pick from Ah Seng is Black Pearl. This elongated fruit has a nipple-like base and is much sought after by those who prefer a bitter flavour edge. The flesh is smooth with a distinctive grey hue. Ah Seng enjoys highlighting the seeds of this fruit to customers: "Don't you think it looks like a natural black pearl with its shrunken and irregular shape?"
Kong Lee Hup Kee Trading Co
Blk 440 Pasir Ris Street 6 #01-03
Top picks: Mao Shan Wang, D13
This husband and wife team has a pedigreed history in the business. Chia Boon Huat began selling durians when he was 19; today he is in his late 50s. Mdm Poh Lai Wan is a 2nd generation member of a family-owned durian distributorship; together Chia and Poh have seen first hand how the industry monopolized by a small coterie of families evolved into its present multi-million-dollar free market.
In the early years, Mr Chia was reputed to have stocked the best durians from Tiger Hill and counted David Marshall as one of his regulars. Those same strong bonds with his plantation suppliers today see him securing some of the highest-quality Mao Shan Wang and D13 cultivars in Singapore.
To durian enthusiasts, Mao Shan Wang needs no introduction. It has one of the strongest and most pungent flavours of any durian, with a sulphuric hint to its aftertaste. It also has an extremely heavy and creamy bite with very little fibre.
On the other hand, a good grade D13 has a subtler appeal. Its layers of bitterness and sweetness deliver a punch that is not over powering, making this refined cultivar a great introduction for durian newbies.
Ah Seng Durian
Blk 20 Ghim Moh Market #01-197
Top picks: Kasap or ice-cream, Tawa and D24
Shui Poh Sing or "Ah Seng" is proud of his pioneer status and wants you to know it. He was the sole durian merchant in Ghim Moh some 30 years back. "From selling kampong durians, I became the first to introduce branded durians in Ghim Moh," he says, adding that he sold the fruits "in front of my provision shop at Block 10". When the HDB block was redeveloped two years ago, Ah Seng moved into the nearby wet market, where he is today.
In season, Ah Seng manages to sell more than 600kg of durian each day. His haul of prime cultivars comes from various plantations in Malaysia, to which he makes regular visits during the off seasons. The relationship between plantation owner and merchant is again the key to ensuring the finest fruits. "During such trips, I would get to know where, and which, are the best durians for the coming season."
"This season I would recommend D24," declares Ah Seng. "This batch comes from Penang's hilltops. The current dry weather helps to enhance the quality of the flesh giving it a more robust taste." Also known as Sultan Durian, the D24 used to be jealously reserved for the sultans of Malaysia because of its scarcity. The yellowish creamy flesh and bittersweet taste of the celebrated D24 has since won it many die-hard admirers.
The other cultivar that keeps Ah Seng on durian-lovers' speed-dials is the Kasap or ice-cream. The Kasap's flash is slightly gluey in feel, and its seeds so tiny they can be eaten with a spoon. You could scoop a few seeds into your mouth and savour the sensation as they roll around slowly massaging the taste buds.
The Tawa is another fruit at its peak this season, according to Ah Seng. This oblong-shaped durian will appeal to the bolder eaters who are after a particularly strong pungency. Definitely not for the faint-hearted or the beginner.
Katong Durian Fruits
227 East Coast Road
Top picks: D13, D101, Golden Phoenix
Wong Yew Loon or "Ah Loon" could be considered the new kid on the block. He began as a hawker but turned full-time durian seller five years ago, progressing from a makeshift stall to his present shop house along East Coast Road.
His prominent shop front attracts the crowds, with the gourmets in particular making a beeline for his D13s. The flesh of this durian has a reddish hint that allows it to be passed off easily by sellers as a wannabe of the prized Ang Hei (red prawn) cultivar of Penang.
Ah Loon's D13 originates from Johor and bears a soft custard-like texture with a bittersweet aftertaste.
The D101 is another cultivar often mistaken for the D13 with a similar taste that's a slight notch down. Golden Phoenix or Jin Feng comes mainly from East Malacca. This cultivar has a light green or greyish outer husk and is loved by fans for its uniquely sweet and bitter taste.
Wan Li Xiang
Dempsey Hill off Holland Road (after Muthu's Curry of Blk 7)
9756 2385 / 9018 2853
Top picks: Milk King and Kampong durian from Pulau Ubin
This stall has existed at Dempsey for so long that it has become an institution among the durian-loving fraternity. "My father first started selling durians at Jalan Bukit Merah, where ABC Food Centre now stands. After that we moved to Alexandra Village before settling down at Dempsey car park some 30 years ago," says Cheng Ah Di, better known as Ah Di Junior.
There were a few other durian stalls when they first arrived at the car park, recalls Ah Di Junior, "but we are the only one left now".
The founder of the stall, Ah Di Senior, is in his '80s and has since passed the ropes of the business to his son.
This is where you can find local kampong durians. Although wild durian trees can still be found at several locations in Singapore, the only kampong durians still available for commercial sale are grown on Pulau Ubin. But even Pulau Ubin has undergone development in recent years, and only two small durian plantations are left. Fortunately Ah Di Senior had established a long-term relationship with the two remaining plantation owners; so supplies, though small, are ensured.
On one of the plantations only a single tree still stands, the beneficiary of the owner's undivided attention and care because it produces 10 or more Milk King or Guni Ong durians every day during harvest. The flesh of the Milk King is silky and smooth and very similar to D13, but the lingering milky aftertaste is the true mark of this particular cultivar.
The kampong durian is such a rarity in Singapore these days; but a small warning is due: if you are eating the kampong durian for the first time, it may not possess the richly robust and creamy taste of Mao Shan Wang. But it certainly brings back a golden time when the unadulterated taste of the durian is as Mother Nature intended it to be.
How to pick a durian
1) Look at the fruit and its spike tips. The fruit should look fresh and slightly green; likewise the spike tips should be moist and fresh looking.
2) Hold the fruit close to your nose and take a whiff. It should smell pungent and fresh. Due to its high sugar content, a durian starts to decay within a day of harvesting.
3) Make sure that the fruit is fully intact without any cracks at the base, and a body that is bulging. Look for the squirrel's bite as it indicates that this particular fruit is the best of the crop.
4) It is believed that a durian with an elongated shape yields better and thicker flesh.
5) Shake the fruit and listen for dull, hollow knocks as it indicates that the flesh is slightly dry and not too soft, which is a sign of over-ripeness.
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