Asia's 'king of fruits', the highly revered durian is gaining more exposure in international markets as more foodies take a liking to its smelly goodness, while some businesspeople are opting for new outlets through processing.
While the durian is native to the rainforests of Malaysia and Indonesia, the world's largest exporter is Thailand with annual shipments worth more than THB2 billion (US$64.8 million). Malaysia comes in second with production of around 265,000 metric tons (MT), which represents around 20% of the global supply.
Durians are known around the world for their garbage-like scent, reminiscent of week-old socks. The aroma is so inescapable it has been banned from Singapore's public transport system, as well as many hotels throughout South East Asia.
But getting beyond the scent, the fruit is rich and creamy, contains hints of almonds and possesses a smooth texture.
Singapore-based Four Seasons Durians owner Victor Chan, says Malaysian-grown durians are the most fragrant.
"I just love it. The aroma, the creamyness, the aftertaste. I don’t get sick of it," he says.
The tropical fruit has to be consumed in the evening when it is a little cooler because of its ‘heaty’ nature and too much of the yellowy flesh can make you feverish.
During the durian season, between June and July in Malaysia, the fruit will fall off the tree during the early hours of the morning, and will be harvested, packed and transported via truck to Singaporean markets that afternoon.
This is how Chan gets his fresh product during the short season, but he highlights that durian lovers have created ways to allow the fruit to be consumed all year long.
The former chef creates pancakes, puffs, puddings and cakes that use frozen durian, and his franchise now has three outlets in Singapore.
"The durian only has two seasons a year. We only freeze it when it is abundant and we have stock that can last six months," he says.
"If you compare the frozen and fresh one of course there is a slight difference but it can stay for six months no problem."
Zul Jaffar, operations manager for import-export company Hock Chew Tee Impex, says he has overseas clients attempting to create durian juice, and has an Italian client using it for his gelato on the other side of the world.
While it is largely the yellow meaty flesh of the durian that is prized, Chan hopes the fruit can go beyond the food industry, as the husk and white part of the fruit go to waste 60-70% of the time.
"The outside (husk) can be recycled and into blankets and lots of stuff but the most important is the white stuff that can be used in the beauty industry for masks and anti-ageing. I am processing it, it is starting, and I am trying to get the local government to support this," he says.
The business owner says the white part of the durian keeps the smell in, and therefore can be made into deodorizing soap. The fruit also holds many health benefits, and can help women during their pregnancy.
"It is the best. It has a lot of protein. (Women) They take it and it is good for the baby. It has a lot of nutrients and replenishes the woman as the birth uses a lot of energy."
He says for men durians also increase sex drive and fertility rates.
Swag of varieties
The range of durian cultivars available is not the result of any recent scientific breeding programs, but largely the work of growers selecting their favorite trees.
Jaffar says there are many varieties, and notes that in Thailand experts have even attempted to create a durian that does not smell.
"To create durians they’ve got many recipes - you can make more than 50. Do not mistake me, there's maybe more. They mix this and mix that but then the taste is still durian," he says.
Jaffar's company sells lower grade frozen durian pulp at SGD$14-16 (US$10.90-12.46) per kilogram, while the mountain cat variety can fetch around SGD$60 (US$46.74)/kg.
Out of Asia?
Chan is confident durian can be sold to foreigners within Singapore, but is sceptical about sales outside Asia. While he is dying to get the fruit into Europe, there is still a long way to go.
"We have tourists that buy our product from Italy and America, even the Japanese. In Hong Kong we are in the press and on the TV. We are in the Hong Kong tourism book so people who come to Singapore can look for us," he says.
"Westerners eat durian. Some try and they like it. It’s like cheese. The smell is awful but when you taste it you love it. You can get addicted."
Jaffar says people just need to let go of their inhibitions when they try the fruit.
"We understand it, but you know some people they say it’s very nice but impossible to describe."
Photos: Victor Chan