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Penang, Malaysia, and other places where to eat the best durians

Durian is a fruit unique to Southeast Asia. This is sort-of strange, as almost any fruit or vegetable with a somewhat appealing taste has long become a universally cultivated crop. And not that the durian would be lacking in taste appeal. Those who like durian typically regard it as the king of fruit. And even in countries where, during the harvest season, there is a real flood of durians, prices never drop to dirt-cheap levels, as they do for pineapples and bananas.

Well, durians have a strong smell and a unique taste. Could be that those who haven't seen others indulging in durians have doubts as to the fruit's fitness for human consumption. Judging by the fruit's smell, its flesh moves straight from unripe to rotten.

But when good durians are available at reasonable prices I can, for weeks on end, make durian the staple of my diet. And I enjoy a good health doing so.

I haven't been to a hospital or physician for years, and I practically never take any medicine. Anyway, I have little confidence in medical science, and would never undergo an operation that requires full anesthesia.

I can eat durian for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and I am confident that I can do so until an old age, without developing diabetes or hepatitis. Actually, I even believe that the durian has a magical power to keep me young and look young, without facelifts or other cosmetic or plastic surgery.

Only slowly, durians are catching on in other parts of the world. They aren't grown yet commercially on other continents, though the climate would be ideal in the Northern parts of South America, as well as sub-Saharan Africa. (I have been informed by a reader that there are a few durian trees on Zanzibar.)

Durians are catching on in other parts of the world primarily because Thailand now produces, on a large scale, exportable durian fruit of the Mon Thong variety. Mon Thong is the only durian variety that is suitable to be shipped (usually by plane) to far-away destinations because Mon Thong durian can be harvested weeks before they have fully ripened, can be stored for weeks, and have no tendency to rot prematurely.

Classical durian varieties as they are common in Indonesia (mainly Sumatra and Borneo) have to ripen on the tree and are harvested only once they have fallen off on their own. They are then best eaten within some 6 hours, or, at least, within a day. They will lose flavor and texture beginning on the second day after having fallen off the tree.

Thai agriculturists have also succeeded in minimizing the typical offensive durian smell. On Thai durian plantations, transplantation surgery on this cash crop is a common occurrence. By transplanting branches of grown trees onto newly growing trees of less than 70 cm in height, they keep the trees of their plantations low… a precondition for making the harvesting of unripe fruit an easy task. Naturally growing durian trees can reach an impressive height of up to 30 meters.

As a result of the efforts of Thai agriculturists, durian fruit now is exported to North America, with Western Canada a major destination (as Western Canada, particularly Vancouver, has a substantial population of Asian, especially Southern Chinese, origin).

Commercial Mon Thong durians are the most digestion-friendly sub-species. By this, I don't mean that in general, durians would be hard to digest. No stomach cramps and no excessive winds as with cabbage, and no discharge pain as with chilies. But with non-Mon Thong durians, there will be burping, and burps do smell like the durian fruit... socially not acceptable even in counties where durians are grown. Mon Thong is clearly the mildest kind of durian fruit. (But even in Thailand, durians are usually banned in offices and hospitals.)

However, Mon Thong durians are like Del Monte bananas. They are a neat agricultural product: they look good (no wrinkles, no age spots) on supermarket shelves, they stay young and can be stored with ease for quite some time, produce little odor, are of predictable, standardized quality. But they no longer have quite the original taste. OK, I don't mind what they do with bananas. But for the durian, it's a loss.

Durians are like grapes and wine, or like cheese. They are a food for gourmets, for connoisseurs. For genuine durian lovers, differentiating tastes in accordance to variety and region can be a true science.

Classic durians, as they are found on Sumatra and Borneo, come in as wide a variety and shades of taste as does wine, or cheese. Though there isn't a durian culture yet as there is a wine culture, there would be a good foundation for it. It's probably only a matter of Southeast Asia becoming sufficiently developed in economic terms to support food culture on a Western level.

Gourmet durian culture will have to be centered on Sumatra and Borneo, just as wine and cheese culture is centered on France.

Thailand may currently be the world's main durian exporter, and has the lowest prices (during the season in May), but Indonesia is the cradle of the fruit, and has hundreds of yet unclassified varieties.

Those who know only the standard Thai Mon Thong variety will be surprised in how many different flavors and textures durian can come.

Standard Thai Mon Thong durians have sweet fruity-tasting meat with a firm texture and of yellow color. It's the variety that is the least likely to be outright disliked. It's also a bit boring for the taste buds.

Indonesian durians come in a wide range of flavors.

My own preferred variety has white, wrinkled meat with a texture like whipped cream and a bitter-sweet, nutty taste.

When the meat is not wrinkled upon opening of the fruit, the taste will be less creamy, and rather fruity.

You are less likely to find bitter-sweet durians with yellow meat, but occasionally you will come across that combination, too.

Yellow-meat durians are usually just sweet, not bitter-sweet. They also are less likely to have a nutty flavor.

"Durian", by the way, is an Indonesian word. "Duri" translates as thorn, and "durian" means thorny. Therefore durian, by name, is the thorny fruit. Which indeed, it is. You can kill a person by throwing a durian at his head. It's just like a ball of spikes. (There is another Southeast Asian fruit, known by an Indonesian name: Rambutan, the "hair fruit", "rambut" being the Indonesian word for "hair".)

Indonesia has the best climate for durians (highly tropical), and in the chief Indonesian durian-growing area of North Sumatra, durians are available year round. Incidentally, during the Thai durian season of mid-April to mid-June, there is the least output on North Sumatra, and prices rise to threefold their peak season's level.

I am convinced that durians are good for health, not just because fruit in general is healthy.

The locals in all countries where durians are grown believe that it heats the body. You'll be told that if you eat durian before bedtime, you won't need a blanket. I haven't seen any scientific proof in that direction, and I have been feeling unusually hot only a few times after eating durians in the evening.

From my own experience of eating thousands of durian fruits, I know that in some magical way, eating durian (in sufficient quantity) will clear the lungs and breath pathways. After having consumed the flesh of two durians with a combined weight (not yet pealed) of about 4 kg, I always cough up phlegm from my lungs.