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July 19, 2011

Experts' Expert: Durian farmer Durian Seng on how to eat a durian

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Who better to opine on the subject than a man so identified with durians in his native Malaysia that people ignore his given name (Chang Teik) in favor of the appellation "Durian?"

Julie Wan's July 13 Washington Post Style section front page story featuring Seng (above, holding out an Ang Bak durian in his orchard) — the descendant of a family of longtime durian farmers — was accompanied by a sidebar (bottom) about how to choose, prepare and eat a durian.

This could turn out to be useful one day.

Excerpts from the main story follow.

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.

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. 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.

“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.

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.

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. 

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Below, Seng's tips on how to choose, prepare and eat a durian.

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July 19, 2011 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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Comments

Love them. Have Durian cookies in the pantry as I write this.

Really no different than a bit of well-ripened Brie with some fig compote.... (though I prefer my Brie & fruit to be Brie and ripe Banana).

I've made use of the Busse Fusion Battle Mistress to open Durian. They were made for each other. See knife (better model than mine) here: http://bit.ly/pe3dDj

The FBM will open anything from Durian to bank vaults......

Posted by: 6.02*10^23 | Jul 20, 2011 1:26:54 AM

Sounds like a winner, Joe if possible, book this:

http://www.cheapflights.com/flights-to-malaysia/charlotte/

And let us know straight from the horse's palate.

Posted by: Joe Peach | Jul 19, 2011 5:44:09 PM

I had half-way thawed frozen durian once. It was like pudding made with onions.

Posted by: Becs | Jul 19, 2011 4:58:07 PM

I had half-way thawed frozen durian once. It was like pudding made with onions.

Posted by: Becs | Jul 19, 2011 4:58:07 PM

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