Grown across tropical Southeast Asia, the durian is hailed as the “king of fruits” by fans, who liken its creamy texture and intense aroma to blue cheese. But detractors say durians stink of sewage and stale vomit. The strong smell means many hotels across the region have banned guests from bringing them to rooms, while Singapore does not allow the fruit on its subway system.
Nevertheless, they are a hit in China, and the increase in demand has prompted exporters to vie for a bigger share of the burgeoning market. Growers in Malaysia are increasingly shifting from small orchards to industrial-scale operations – a trend that environmentalists warn presents a new threat to rainforests already challenged by loggers and palm oil plantations.
“Right now durians are gaining a lot of attention from the Chinese market,” said Sophine Tann, from environmental protection group PEKA, which has studied land clearances to make way for the fruit. “This deforestation for the planting of durians is in preparation to meet that demand.” In the jungle-clad district of Raub in central Malaysia, swathes of rainforest have recently been chopped down to make way for a new plantation, with durian seedlings protected by netting planted across bare hillsides. The plantation is next to an area of protected forest, which is home to a kaleidoscope of animals from monkeys to exotic birds.
Love at First Bite
In a Beijing mall, a stall named “Little Fruit Captain” is doing a brisk trade selling Malaysian durians. Shop manager Wang Tao said his customers “fall in love” with durians from Malaysia due to their particularly sweet taste, often preferring them to those from rival exporters, such as Thailand. He imports frozen durians from a facility in Malaysia and sells them in plastic containers or in other forms – a kind of baked dessert, in ice cream or fried up as crisps. Customers are kept up to date about the shop’s stock via the WeChat messaging app.
“I first tried durian as a child and acquired a taste for it,” said university student Liu Zelun, who visits the shop once a week for her durian fix. “Thai durians have a stronger flavour and you tend to get sick of it after a while, but not the ones that I buy from here.”
The most popular variety – and one of the most expensive – is Musang King, known for its thick, golden flesh. A single Musang King was on sale at the Beijing stall for 800 yuan (Rs 8,300 approximately), several times more expensive than in Malaysia. “Our customers aren’t concerned about the prices, they just want the best,” said Wang.
$1,000 a Piece
In January 2019, two durian fruits sold for nearly $1,000 each in Indonesia, an eye-watering price that lit up social media and prompted awestruck fans to take selfies with the pungent pair. Fetching 14 million rupiah (Rs 70,000 approximately) each, the spiky fruits were displayed in a clear case on red satin at a supermarket in Tasikmalaya, a city in West Java province.
Unlike the usual oblong variety, which sells for just a few dollars, the round “J-Queen” brand durians are reported to be extremely rare and possess the punchiest of aromas. “The buyer did not want to be named, but he was a durian lover,” said supermarket manager Heriawan Teten. Not all internet users were impressed by the extravagant cost. “The price is crazy – I’d rather use the money to buy a motorbike,” one Instagram user said.
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