To discover the unsung heroes who risk their lives to harvest the King of Fruits, we embark on a 24-hour adventure along a hilly plantation near Kuala Lumpur
It is like walking through a minefield, blindfolded, as a startling “boom” is set off by a thorn-covered fruit hitting the ground. This is the only guidance of where not to step as I cautiously wander into a dark forest about 100km from Kuala Lumpur, struggling to keep up with seasoned durian farmer Hou Kok Shi as we walk through his plantation. Prudence dictates that I turn back, but my gastronomic curiosity gets the better of me as the light morning breeze transports the fruit’s strong aroma, which serves as a mild warning to what lay ahead.
Mr Hou has spent three decades of his life, twice a day, effortlessly tossing durians into a flimsy basket attached to his backpack. The first trip takes place between 6.30am and 9.30am and then again from 5pm until 7pm. What am I doing here? I silently think to myself during one of the many quiet moments when I lose sight of Mr Hou. Unlike him, I am wearing a ridiculous fluorescent pink sky diving helmet with the cartoon character Stitch printed on it. As though that would deter this thorny fruit from raining onto my head or protect me from its scent.
Ubiquitous in Southeast Asia and crowned the King of Fruits, the durian is certainly distinguished by one thing: its strong aroma. “Like pungent, runny French cheese. Your breath will smell as if you’d been French kissing your dead grandmother,” was how the late chef Anthony Bourdain once described it.
The fruit is well protected by its intimidating husk, which needs to be sliced to reveal the round, pale yellow fleshy fruit underneath. “It looks like a human brain,” exclaimed chef Gordon Ramsay on one of his encounters with the fruit in Sumatra.
Though many durian varieties have surfaced over the recent years, the Musang King, originating from the North-East of Peninsula Malaysia, is one of the most renowned for its extremely creamy texture and bittersweet taste, hence commanding a premium selling price over the others. Fifty percent of the fruits hanging above me today are Musang King. The other varieties are known only by numbers, including the D24, D88 and D2. Despite the Musang King’s premium, Mr Hou maintains the other species in his plantation for immediate and sustainable income whilst switching to the Musang King variety for all newly planted trees.
I grew up with fond childhood memories of the durian. In a much toned down traditional Chinese family reunion-styled setting, we would sit in a circle on the floor, with the fruit resting upon old newspapers. My father would wield a huge knife as I waited with much anticipation for him to de-husk the fruit, releasing the aroma that was waiting to burst out of its spiky jail. The fruit, I would imagine, had spent the last few hours in a basket making its way from a plantation in the heart of Malaysia to Singapore. Oblivious to its origins and the dangers exposed to these durian farmers, my parents and I would dig into the creamy yellow fruit which lay before us.
This is why I am here on a nine-acre hilly plantation in the durian-growing province of Raub. I had recently become curious about the provenance of Asia’s most beloved fruit and wanted to unravel its stories. Who are these unsung heroes who risk life and limb to harvest them and bring them to market?
Durian fruitlets; Mr Yap after the night harvest; aerial shot of Mr Hou with his bounty of durian
I survived the treacherous downhill journey with nothing more than a mud bath and a bruised ego
After traversing about a hundred feet, I look down and see the silhouette of Mr Hou rapidly disappearing through a steep band of rock. As I increase my pace and widen my stride in a feeble attempt to narrow the gap between us, I step on a chunk of loose soil and land in a mixture of wet mud and rotting durian husks.
Despite braving countless near misses on an almost daily basis, Mr Hou confirms that he has never sustained any durian-related injuries. In fact, his biggest fears are pests and diseases, such as the Canker disease (also known as root rot), which if left untreated could result in a tragic 30 percent decrease in yield. He is optimistic about the future of durian farmers given the ever-growing demand from China and lack of supply, especially for the Musang King variety. According to Khalid Ibrahim, marketing and export division secretary of the Malaysian Ministry of Agriculture and Food Industries, the national durian production is expected to increase to 443,000 metric tonnes by 2030.
Having survived the treacherous downhill journey with nothing more than a mud bath and a bruised ego, I gingerly pick myself off the gooey floor containing the remnants of the morning harvest. Wearing the musky smell of damp soil as a cologne, I climb into a pickup truck heading towards the entrance of the estate. I am greeted by a middle man who stands by a makeshift table along the dusty roadside sorting fruits. An endless flow of pickups from multiple farmers continue to come his way.
The fruits are graded mainly by variety, size, quality and number of bruises in the respective grades A, B and C. I watch silently, fixated on the hive of activity as the fruits are weighed and transferred to the middleman’s truck.
3 ways to explore the great outdoors in Pahang
White Water Rafting on Jeram Besu River
With rapids of Classes 1 through 3, this activity will thrill most adrenaline seekers as they soak in the lush greenery and abundance of wildlife. It is an activity that the inexperienced may enjoy as they also provide water confidence courses.
Hiking on the Hemmant Trail
This 1km child-friendly hike leads through trees and to a little town on top of Fraser’s Hill. Others seeking a more challenging hike can access other trails from the Hemmant Trail. It ends within walking distance from the renown Glass House Fraser’s where diners may enjoy an aromatic mug of coffee with a slice of cake within the tranquil ambiance of the glass house.
Tour through Yes Durian Orchard
Visitors seeking to venture into the exotic realm of gastronomy may face off with the king of fruits at the orchard. They offer scenic tours catering to participants of all ages and even have a restaurant which serves durian-inspired dishes. City dwellers eager to unwind from their busy lives can also check out the homestay. yesdurian.com
My next stop is Nicky Koh’s durian processing facility where the fruits are cleaned with a high pressured air-gun and de-husked. They are then sorted by grade and variety, placed into endless racks of plastic containers and frozen at arctic temperatures (-30 degrees Celsius) for 24 hours prior to being packed into Ziplock bags, preserving their freshness and aroma.
Koh says there are 40 durian processing facilities across Malaysia with the Good Manufacturing Practices certification, with only half obtaining the license to export. This industry first emerged around eight years ago, he adds, beginning with the processing of Kampong durians into a paste, with the D-24 and Musang King varieties following suit years later. The increase in demand is what fuelled his decision to embark on the journey as a durian fruit processor. On that note, I leave Koh’s premises clueless to the dangers lurking in the night harvest.
Don’t worry! Legend dictates that durians have eyes!
That evening, I stand at the entrance to yet another durian plantation, which has passed through three generations. I cast a wary eye at an 80-year-old durian tree, the oldest tree on the plantation. Bountiful with durians threatening to fall, to the delight of plantation owner Yap Ah Choy, but to our absolute horror.
“Don’t worry! Legend dictates that durians have eyes!” teases Mr Yap with a cheeky grin, seconds before a durian drops between us barely a few feet away. “Told you,” he says, as he slings a well-seasoned rattan basket over his shoulder, wearing only a head mounted torch light and nothing else to protect his head.
These farmers must be either really brave or absolutely oblivious to what is happening around us, I think silently to myself while rolling my eyes in the darkness. As we venture deeper into the night, the sight of durians on the trees fades into the approaching darkness only to be replaced by the increasing, unmistakable scent and a terrifying boom from the falling durians like an endlessly beating Cherokee drum.
Unlike Hou’s plantation in the morning, Yap’s plantation has nettings installed just above eye level to prevent the durians from hitting the ground and bruising. However, this provides me with no comfort whatsoever as its main purpose is to elevate the fruit off the ground, protecting them from wild boars. I still stand a very real chance of getting hit. The Musang King variety – due to their value – are tied to a string to keep them suspended. The fruit falling from a branch shares an uncanny resemblance to a guillotine.
After filling his basket to the brim with durians, Yap places these fruits in a much bigger basket at a collection point and covers them with a used fertiliser bag, again to protect the harvest from wild boars. Yap says these creatures share an exotic taste, with preference for the Musang King over the D24. Using nothing but their snout to penetrate the thorny husk of the durian, the wild boar savours the fruit and seed whole. These creatures can get aggressive on occasion. Dressed in a pair of torn washed out jeans and a seasoned T-shirt, Yap protects himself with a registered pistol he carries close, like an old cowboy from the wild West.
Mr Hou in action; The Musang King, Koh (right) carrying a basket of durians upon arrival at his facility
“Patience. A lot of patience,” laughs Mr Chong without hesitation, as he informs us of the main requirement of a durian farmer. Chong Woon Sing has been in the agriculture industry selling chemicals and fertilisers to multiple growers prior to becoming a proud owner of a five-year newly planted, four-acre durian plantation comprising of the Musang King and Black Thorn variety.
Although he had aspirations of embarking on the journey as a durian grower since he was 15, “Mother has final say,” jokes Chong with a cheeky grin. He explained his mother’s reluctance to reclaiming the land from her sister. The land was formerly owned by his father and utilised to cultivate rubber by his aunt until Chong inherited the land in 2016. He has since converted it due to the lucrative durian prices.
He has spent most of his days amongst the young trees battling pests and diseases armed with an arsenal of chemicals and fertilisers. Despite Chong’s tender loving care, the plantation is not expected to bear sellable fruits until one or two years later. Even then, initial fruits might be pruned away depending on the strength of the tree’s roots.
“[There] is no point being greedy just to have a tree full of fruits get blown by the wind due to weak roots. It is like looking after a child, the tree requires a firm foundation,” advises Chong. Such is the average waiting time, in addition to the estimated RM 90,000 (S$29,246) that he has already invested into the farm in the form of irrigation systems, fertilisers and chemicals. “Just the repairs done to the roads already cost me RM 15,000 (S$4,874).” Other farmers however, on occasion, plant other short-term crops such as papaya and banana for income during the wait.
In addition to being enjoyed fresh, durian is frozen full pulp with seed; it is then packed; preparation of durian paste; frozen durian paste
Similar to Chong and Yap, most durian plantations are passed from generation to generation with the amount of affection, dedication and investment steadily multiplying with time, especially in the initial years and stages of the trees.
I’m not quite sold on the legend that “durians have eyes”. I have embarked on this journey. I have faced off with a falling durian. I have braved its scent and more importantly, grown a renewed respect for these farmers. Finally, I have come to the conclusion that bravery itself is the only thing that knows when I am afraid.
Ian Poh Jin Tze is a freelance writer born in Singapore and currently based in Kuala Lumpur. He has fond childhood memories of eating durian and is passionate about food, travel, photography and extreme sports. His works have appeared on Asian Food Network Eater and Le Cordon Bleu and is the founder of lifestyle blog monk3yseendo.
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