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Southeast Asia celebrates durian at parties, festivals and buffets

Despite poor reputation in Western media, fruit pleases palates across region

A durian party in Singapore in 2018. The spiky fruit is a celebrated summer delicacy in parts of Southeast Asia, with flavors that can range from creamy custard to bitter, boozy liquor. (Courtesy of 99 Old Trees)

TAIPEI -- There are over 500 types of tropical fruit in Asia, ranging from the common mango to the relatively obscure santol. But few have garnered as much international press as the durian.

Originally from the Malay Peninsula, it is a polarizing fruit for those with little exposure to it. Some have compared its appearance -- round, spiky and up to 12 inches long -- to a medieval torture device and others have been so nauseated by its smell that they were hospitalized. Once, a poorly wrapped shipment of the fruit grounded an entire plane.

Yet for many of the 670 million residents of Southeast Asia and beyond, the durian is far from noxious. Grown throughout the region, but especially in Malaysia and Thailand, it is a celebrated summer delicacy -- its varieties are adored for their aromatic pulp, with flavors that can range from creamy custard to bitter, boozy liquor. And it even inspires parties.

Durian importer Kelvin Tan started hosting his sukawas in Singapore a year ago. A mix of Malay and Hokkien slang, sukawa means "as we please," and the event is similar to the Japanese omakase, where the chef chooses the courses for the guests based on seasonal specialties. But instead of meticulously chosen pieces of fish, the tasting revolves around rare breeds of durians that only those with the right connections can access.

Each sukawa comprises six courses of durian -- all grown in small quantities, including one that Tan calls a glutinous durian because of its chewy texture, like the Japanese mochi sweet, and another one known as the Dalit, which is harvested wild from the jungles of Borneo.

A durian tasting in Singapore. At durian importer Kelvin Tan's events, the fruit is served in six courses that revolve around rare breeds that only people with the right connections can access. (Courtesy of 99 Old Trees)

But unlike most breeds of durian, whose pulps are different hues of yellow -- ranging from muted pastel to bright school bus -- the Dalit's pulp is a shocking saturated blood-orange, and tastes like a combination of "jackfruit, almonds, peanut butter, watermelon and bubble gum all mixed together," he says.

Sukawas are intimate affairs -- eight people maximum; there simply are not enough rare durians to accommodate larger groups. But Tan, who is behind Singaporean durian delivery company 99 Old Trees, has also hosted durian parties for over 500 people with more common varieties like Musang King and Black Thorn durian.

"We just gorge on durians and that's about it," he says. "You just stuff your face with durian."

Durian fans take selfies with the fruit in Singapore in 2018. (Courtesy of 99 Old Trees)

This is likely not the first thing to come to mind when most Westerners think of durians. But the durian's odor is not so much offensive as it is misunderstood, says Lindsay Gasik, an American durian blogger currently based in Thailand: "Why is it that in Western culture the only thing that you can find on the internet about durian is about how it is awful?" Gasik has been writing about durians since 2012 on her site Year of the Durian, where she also runs durian tours and sells durians internationally.

The strong reactions are not unfounded. Durians are indisputably pungent, but how that pungency is interpreted makes all the difference. "The durian has hundreds of volatile compounds," Tan says, "Some people do get headaches and it's not for everyone. But to us, a durian is a natural dessert. It's like a custard that grows on trees."

For Zona Tan-Sheppard, who sells durian in Australia through her business, The Thorny Fruit Co., the disgust is understandable. "Sometimes the first smell you get is like gas, so the body is in this fight or flight mode," she says. "It is natural to have that negative connotation. ... [But] for those who grew up with it, it triggers good memories."

Durian blogger Lindsay Gasik, left, and her business partner Richard Kouivusalo on a farm in Limbang, Borneo. (Courtesy of Lindsay Gasik)

She notes that durians do not all taste the same. "You can get custard flavors, and maybe a bit of onion," she says. "I've noticed that Anglo-Australians like the more fermented durians that have an alcoholic taste to them."

It is the diversity of the fruit that makes these tastings so appealing. Sukawas are just the tip of the iceberg: Gasik estimates that there are hundreds of durian festivals a year spread out across Southeast Asia.

"A lot of these festivals are not festivals in the Western sense," says Gasik, who attends an average of two a month. "There's not much to do except to buy durian. The government wants to promote farmers in that region and they ask all the farmers to go to one specific parking lot and sell their stuff."

Top: Durian with shaved ice and other toppings. Bottom: A durian tasting party hosted by The Thorny Fruit Co. in Australia. (Courtesy of Zona Tan-Sheppard)

The ones that stand out for her are the Tenom Durian Festival in Malaysia and the Tagum City Durian Festival in the Philippines. "They'll do things like have live music, a contest among the farmers [and] tastings and have different types of cooking events," she says. "I went to one where they had a durian eating contest where you had to have your hands behind your back."

For attendees, these festivals are a way to relax and share their love for the fruit. "When I was working for Fujitsu in Malaysia, I organized yearly durian festivals for the company," says Tai Chong Poh, a durian farmer in Malaysia. "It was the best bonding session a company can have for its employees." Today, Poh owns a 9-acre farm in Pahang with 600 durian trees.

Durian farmer Tai Chong Poh. His 9-acre estate in Malaysia has 600 trees. (Courtesy of Tai Chong Poh)

In Hong Kong, there are even dedicated durian buffets, like Durian BB. "At our all-you-can-eat parties, Musang King durians are the highlight," says KK Yuen, a partner at Durian BB. Musang King is a breed of durian from the Raub District in Pahang, Malaysia, prized for its buttery, custard-like flavor. Made famous by a series of purchases by the late Macao tycoon Stanley Ho, the Musang is an international favorite, especially among the Chinese.

At DurianBB, customers pay $90 for one buffet session, which is roughly how much one Musang King retails for in China. "Participants can eat all they want within two hours for the price of one durian," Yuen says. Founded in 2012, the company now has branches all over Asia and has hosted around 300 durian buffets and served over 30,000 participants. Although sales for the first buffet were slow, soon "it was as if we were selling iPhones."

For those who want more intimate durian experiences, there are specialty tours, resorts and farm stays -- particularly in Malaysia and Thailand -- where itineraries revolve around eating durians and touring durian farms.

"We just go there to eat durians for three days," says Sukendro Sutrisno, an Indonesian businessman and aspiring durian farmer. Sutrisno has loved durians his whole life and for the last five years, he and his buddies have made summer pilgrimages to Malaysia just to hang out at dedicated durian resorts like the Bilut Hills Durian Resort, which has 25 acres of durian trees on its property, and Bao Sheng Durian Farm, which offers durian cooking classes on top of the regular farm stay and tasting menus.

Indonesian businessman and aspiring durian farmer Sukendro Sutrisno, left, and his wife Liymina Sutrisno at a durian resort in Malaysia. (Courtesy of Melissa Sutrisno)

Like many people in Southeast Asia, Sutrisno grew up on the fruit. He recalls his father bringing home a rickshaw full of it in the 1970s, and the whole family devouring the batch in two days. He even goes to durian resorts with his daughter Melissa. "Durian is a family event," Melissa says. "You open it together. It's good times."

Unlike with most fruits, which are consumed with little to no fanfare, durian-eating is a communal affair. Durians have a shelf life of only two to three days and they are giant -- weighing from 1 to 3 kg.

Tan-Sheppard started organizing durian parties in Australia in late 2019, where she serves a mix of Australian-bred durians and imported varieties, but with social distancing measures in place due to COVID-19 she has had to put a pause on the parties; almost everyone has. But the fruit is still in high demand among enthusiasts and durian gatherings are unfolding all over the world -- albeit more privately.

"When fruit drops from the tree," she says, "you don't just pick it and eat it yourself like you would with an apple. You share with one or two people and have a party.

"No one," she adds, "has a party for one apple."

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