A definite whiff in the air in Penang

Lindsay Gasik sniffing a D14 durian variety at an orchard in Kg Genting Dalam, Balik Pulau, Penang.

GEORGE TOWN: Whether you’re a lover or a hater of the King of Fruits, a nearby durian is hard to ignore.

To durian newbies, the smell – most politely described by some as rotten eggs – usually causes initial reluctance, but once tasted, most people end up licking their fingers and demanding more. And more.

Penang is currently heading for a bumper crop. They’re already dropping from the trees and the season is going into full-swing until around the end of July.

Lindsay Gasik, author of a guidebook on Penang durians, told FMT that right now there is no need to shell out for famous varieties like Black Thorn, currently selling at close to RM100 per kilo. You can discover and enjoy the fruit for a lot less.

Gasik says the cheaper varieties are excellent value. Finding the tastiest is not a thorny problem on the island.

As with any fruit, the size of the harvest varies. Last year’s season was long, and heavy rains produced durians tasting slightly different to usual.

Gasik, an American durian-convert, admits there is no exact way to predict durian crops or taste, but after years of studying the fruit across Southeast Asia, she predicts this year’s Penang durian quality would be a lot better due to a good mix of hot and rainy weather.

Penang’s climate means it produces more than 50 varieties of durian, while Pahang, another high-volume grower, produces only five.

The best time to buy durians in Penang would be now (third week of June) until the second week of July, where the harvest would be at its peak. The season is likely to end in August.

If you are lucky enough to be on the Pearl of the Orient, a good place to start exploring the island’s durian plantations is Balik Pulau on the less-visited side of the island overlooking the Malacca Strait.

In particular, people interested in tasting at source should try the orchards along the Sungai Pinang valley, suggests Gasik.

The ‘kacang hijau’ durian variety found in Penang.

Google Maps will point you in the right direction for durian farms like Shan Cheng which are open to visitors and have tasting tours.

Currently, Penang’s well-known durian varieties are Hor Lor, Kun Poh, Little Red, Green Skin and the less exotic-sounding but equally delicious D14 and D15.

Checks by FMT showed these fruits are priced between RM15 and RM25 per kilo and some say they taste even better than more well-known varieties like Musang King.

People have always enjoyed comparing the durian aroma to various less-than-delightful things, usually involving sewers, rotten onions and dead animals.

Gasik and others have tried to describe the taste that delights them so much, but it’s not so easy.

“A rich custard highly flavoured with almonds, but with occasional wafts of cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes,” was the best effort of Alfred Russel Wallace, a renowned 19th-century British naturalist, explorer, and admirer.

But it’s the smell that everyone first notices.

Visitors to Southeast Asia will all have seen “No Durian Allowed!” signs in hotels, shops and taxis. And they mean it.

So, whichever variety you buy, just make sure you finish it all on the spot as your driver may cause a stink if you try to take it back to your hotel in his Grab. And try not to breathe too close to people too.

Locals may warn you about the dangers of consuming durian and alcohol together.

Everyone knows someone who knew someone who had a friend who died from a surfeit of durian and booze.

And the truth is? Lindsay Gasik herself considers the question on her site, the Year of the Durian.

Seems there is no definitive answer. As she points out the only way that a durian would likely harm you is if it drops from the tree onto your head. They are large, heavy and covered in sturdy thorns or “duri” in Malay. So keep your eyes up on your durian tasting tour.

From now until August, you won’t have to go far to find the King of Fruits and watch enthralled as it’s expertly prised open with short knives.

The best deals are, as always, from roadside durian stalls all over the island.

To find one near you, just follow your nose.