A huddle of people are clustered around a few thorny durians. A fruit is picked up and assessed – first it is shaken, then hands are appraisingly clamped on the spiky exterior. Finally, an intrepid nose hovers inches away from the fruit’s sharp carapace.
“Not enough nutrients,” pronounces durian expert Lim Chin Khee solemnly. “Look at the black spots here – it shows a lack of calcium,” says Lim prodding a darker area surrounding the thorns on the fruit.
Lim and other durian mavens have been summoned to judge the Bangi Golf Resort’s World Durian Championship: Malaysia Edition 2019.
The competition was launched last year with 20 entries and proved so popular that this year’s edition saw more than 50 entries vying for the top spot in categories like Musang King, D24, registered clone and Black Thorn.
“After last year’s competition, farmers were convinced that good publicity was equivalent to better business for them,” explains BK Tan, who put together the entire competition.
In many ways, durian competitions are a practical way for farmers to gauge the quality of their fruits and to measure their produce against those of competitors.
Winning also entails getting a bit of a leg-up in the industry.
“Oh yes, winning has helped us a lot. We’ve gotten a lot of recognition and we now even get phone calls and requests for our durians, including one very weird call from a person asking if we could send branches from our Musang King trees to be grafted,” says Eric Chan of durian farm Dulai Fruits.
Chan’s durians were winners in the Musang King and Tekka category last year, a feat he repeated this year when his durians nabbed the top position in both categories once again.
Given the year-on-year response to the competition, it is only likely to get bigger as time goes on, simply because durian farming has become so lucrative in the past few years.
Once considered leisure farming, durian farming in Malaysia has gone global in tandem with increased demand from China.
This in turn, has caused a surge in supply – from 2017 to 2018, durian production rose from 211,000 metric tonnes to 341,000 metric tonnes.
“I believe the number of durian farmers and durian acreage has more than doubled in the last two or three years after we opened the market overseas, especially to China. There is a lot of incentive from the government sector as well as farmers’ associations, so farmers and potential farmers are very interested because they know the market is there,” says Dr Johari Sarip, the director of the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (Mardi) in Johor.
But for Lim and his cohorts, durian-judging is serious business because not only does it give them an opportunity to help deserving farmers, they also get to put their vast knowledge and skills to good use.
A beginner’s guide to durians
In his day job, Lim consults farmers and private organisations on the design and management of their durian farms and provides strategies to improve yield and productivity. Basically, he knows everything there is to know about durians, from farm to fruit, and is quick to determine the viability of a fruit from the very first look.
“Overall, we look at the outlook first, the shape. So, a good durian must be rounded and elongated. When you open the husk, if it is whitish, that is a sign of a lack of nutrients or imbalanced nutrients.
“We also look at the flesh colour – from the colour, we can judge whether it is bitter or sweet. If it is a lightish golden colour, it will be sweet, but if it is golden with a little bit of green, it will be bitter.
“Generally, if you look at the outlook of a fruit, it can give you an indication of about 80% of the quality, although the final test is of course in the tasting,” says Lim.
Although durians in Malaysia are typically collected once they drop from the trees, the best time to actually eat the fruit may not be immediately after it drops. This is because durians naturally ferment in their husks and this fermentation process informs and impacts the end tasting notes of the fruit.
“Durians start to ferment once it drops from the tree. So when it starts to ferment, it will convert to carbohydrates and glucose.
“So that’s why durian sellers will knock the husk a few times – this is how they expedite the fermentation process,” says Lim.
How a fruit ferments is also dependent on how it is managed at the farm level. According to Lim, fermentation can be affected by the nutrients the tree gets – if it has balanced nutrients, it can be eaten a few hours after dropping from the tree because fermentation has already started.
On the other hand, if nutritional intake is insufficient (which can be seen from the surface of the husk), it will take about 24 to 48 hours before it reaches full fermentation.
Other factors that impact fermentation include how many fruits the tree is bearing, what clone it is and the weather at the time (dry weather speeds up fermentation).
And then there is possibly the biggest factor of them all: Consumer preference.
“Some people prefer only sweet fruits, for example the Chinese in China that have just learnt how to eat durians will prefer the sweet ones. So after it drops, within two to three hours if you give them a fruit to eat, they will like it.
“But for Malaysians, they like to eat fully fermented or overripe fruits, so they will prefer durians consumed at a later stage.
“Thai people meanwhile like to eat half-ripened durians and they don’t like very strong aromas, so they actually cut the fruit before it has dropped.
“Any fruit that is harvested earlier will have a lighter aroma, it won’t be so sweet and it won’t be so concentrated. So when it reaches more maturity, the aroma and sweetness will keep on increasing,” says Lim.
Lim says when eating durians, there are a few flavour and textural elements that he looks for.
“In terms of taste, it must be sweet with a little bit of bitterness and it should be creamy, sticky and have a strong aroma. And we don’t want to have a sour-ish element because that means that the tree is sick so the fruit is not healthy,” he says.
Lim says although Malaysians are crazy about durians, most have only eaten a selected variety and can’t really distinguish a good durian from a not-so good one.
“The majority of Malaysians actually just eat, they don’t know much about durians. They’ve never tasted the superior quality ones, so their standard is just whatever they eat in the market.
“So consumers should put in the effort to get some sort of durian education because only then will they know how to select good durians,” says Lim.
Tan however thinks that the effect of competitions like this can be far-ranging and ultimately, cyclical.
“As more and more entities get involved in planting durians, there is a need to distinguish the good from the bad. And from the competition, the public is also indirectly educated on the nuances of what distinguishes a mediocre fruit from an excellent fruit.
“And the more discerning the public gets about fruit quality, the more farmers will monitor their fruit and ultimately raise the bar for quality durians in the market space,” he says.