Durian season is well and truly underway and the season’s most-coveted debutantes remain largely the same – Musang King, D24, Tekka and Black Thorn.
But this year, there is another surprise contender in the mix, a series of underdog kampung durians grown by the Temuan Orang Asli that are proving to be worthy competitors in the local durian landscape.
“In the past, the Orang Asli community that we worked with would invite us over every durian season to enjoy the durians they grew and I always though the durians were great, even though people generally call them kampung durian.
“So I thought it would be cool if the world could start looking at kampung durian differently,” says Daniel Teoh, 27, the founder of social enterprise Biji Bumi Durian.
Teoh’s journey to launching Biji Bumi Durian began – like most stories these days – with the Covid-19 pandemic.
As the founder of another social enterprise called Native, established in 2018, Teoh works with the Orang Asli to build businesses that create more livelihoods and opportunities. A heavily tourism-dependant entity, Native’s target customers quickly dried up when the pandemic struck.
So last year, Teoh and his team started selling durian grown by the Temuan Orang Asli in Hulu Selangor under the Native banner as an alternate source of income.
Realising that there was a gap in the market for these durians, Teoh launched a new brand, Biji Bumi Durian (www.bijibumidurian.com) in July this year to pay homage to the indigenous durian grown by the Orang Asli and share the message (and the durians) with the rest of Malaysia.
Although Biji Bumi Durian is new in the market, Teoh is incredibly encouraged by the fact that they have already sold over 1.2 tonnes of durian in a month. In contrast, last year they sold one tonne of durian throughout the entire durian season!
“The response has been a lot better than we expected. I think the brand has resonated with people because we have shared a lot of information about the durians and Orang Asli culture.
“So people have been following and sharing this story and they have been paying more attention to us, so the response has been significant for us,” says Teoh.
Going above and beyond
Kampung durians have typically always been vastly undervalued compared to top-end durians like Musang King. Most kampung durians are also lumped and sold together, with little in the way of information about point of origin or even what kind of durian you may be getting.
So even though the fruits may have completely different flavour profiles, you simply wouldn’t know, because there is no effort to identify and distinguish them.
But Teoh has striven to change this narrative surrounding kampung durians, by giving it more context.
This is achieved through the stories and information shared on the brand’s website and social media channels about the different durians grown by the Orang Asli. This serves to provide more insight into the various kinds of underrated kampung durians.
But perhaps more pertinently, Teoh actually listens to the Orang Asli and pays them according to their own unique durian grading system and feedback about the rarity of certain fruits.
Teoh says the reason he is very confident in the Orang Asli’s durian valuations is because this particular community has been growing durians for generations and has ancestral knowledge that dates back hundreds of years.
“In this community, they are very reliant on the money they make from durian farming, so parents and grandparents will plant durian trees for their offspring because it will later become a source of income for them.
“So If you ask the Orang Asli, ‘When did you start growing durians?’, they will always say, ‘Ever since I can remember’ or ‘My grandmother gave me this tree,’” says Teoh.
Teoh and his team initially started working with six Orang Asli farmers for their durian project but he now estimates that there are close to 15 growers on their roster, all of whom are managed by a trusted Orang Asli coordinator.
“We ask the Orang Asli, ‘Okay, what kind of different durians do you have?’ So before we accept a new variety, they always send us one fruit to sample, just so we know that it’s different and good.
“And from there, then we ask them, ‘What’s the price for this? What is fair for you? How much would you retail this at?’ So we try to buy close to retail price most of the time. “So for example, the lowest grade of durian that we buy may be RM9 to 10 a kilo but if the Orang Asli consider a particular durian to be superior or very rare, we pay up to RM25 a kilo.
“In comparison, most of the middlemen who buy durians from the Orang Asli will buy everything for RM4 a kilo, but they don’t care where it’s from or what the provenance is,” explains Teoh.
Additionally, as part of their commitment to helping the Orang Asli community, half of the proceeds from the sale of each durian goes directly back to the Orang Asli growers.
This helps Orang Asli growers whose income has been severely affected by the pandemic and also feeds into Teoh’s philosophy of developing an equitable long-term relationship with the growers.
“A large part of our mission is to pay the Orang Asli fairly. In terms of keeping more profits for ourselves, I don’t think this should come at the expense of our growers. Of course our margins are not as good, but it is still sufficient to run a viable business,” says Teoh.
How the durians are grown
All of the durians sourced by Biji Bumi Durian are grown in the forests by the Orang Asli, who have their own peculiar system of sussing out which trees in the thick, dense foliage are theirs.
Unlike intensive durian farming practices everywhere else, the Orang Asli have a very natural, eco-friendly approach to durian farming. For nine months of the year, they allow the trees to rest and grow in the forest, undisturbed by humans. During that time, the Orang Asli take on other jobs.
Just before harvest season, they make their annual return to nurture the trees, a process that begins with clearing the land around each tree, something they believe is essential as durians need space to fruit well.
“When the first durian flowers start arriving, they will start clearing the areas around the durian trees, because for them, the durian tree needs space – nothing else can be growing around it. So they will clear all the foliage and make sure light reaches the trees,” says Teoh.
To ward off wily animals from climbing up the trees and stealing the fruits, the Orang Asli wrap corrugated zinc sheets around the trees. Come harvest time, they sleep around the trees and wait for the fruits to drop naturally.
While the durians grown by the Orang Asli are completely pesticide-free and environmentally-friendly, the community has many traditional, passed-down remedies that it utilises when ailing trees need a boost.
“They spread ash around the base of the tree, which acts like a natural fertiliser. I don’t know if there a science behind this, but it seems to work,” says Teoh.
Teoh says what is remarkable about many of these durian trees is how durable they seem to be.
“Many of the trees are close to 100 years, maybe some exceed that whereas the average Musang King tree can live for 40 to 50 years.
“And I believe this is because the trees are allowed to grow naturally and are left alone for most of the year,” says Teoh.
What’s in a name?
The Temuan Orang Asli have devised unique naming conventions to describe the durians that have been under their care for generations. While these are not official names by any stretch of the imagination, they are derived from the Orang Asli’s understanding of these durians.
Durian bukit for example is the most common varietal grown by the community (apparently there are hundreds of these durian trees) and is sometimes also referred to as durian Communist, because of the manner in which many of the trees originated.
“During the Communist period, many Communists would walk through the forest, find durians, eat them and throw the seeds. From those seeds, trees started to grow, so the Orang Asli credit many of these trees in the forest to having been grown by the Communists,” says Teoh, laughing.
In terms of taste, durian bukit is delightful – creamy flesh intermingles with a bitter punch that hits the back of your palate in tiny, pleasurable doses.
The durian petai meanwhile has just been inaugurated into the Biji Bumi Durian family and is so named because the Orang Asli believe it shares similar qualities with petai (stink bean). Legend has it that in the past, the durian trees and petai trees grew alongside each other, leading the Orang Asli to the conclusion that the durians imbibed some of the qualities of the petai!
On the palate, the durian petai is revelatory – the pale-yellow flesh is luscious and creamy with an almost alcohol-like underbelly, a hint of pungency and so much richness, it’s hard to stop eating (even when you know you’ve had enough). This is a sophisticated durian just bursting with charm.
The durian susu is also a new addition to Biji Bumi’s line-up and is so named because of its creamy texture. According to Teoh, there is another iteration of this durian called durian susu pekat, which apparently denotes extra-creamy flesh.
Another interesting durian under the Biji Bumi Durian stable is durian daun, which is apparently quite rare and very unique, as the shell is palm-sized with thorns that are decidedly less spiky. According to Teoh, this durian has quirky flavour notes best described as “a durian with the soul of a cempedak”.
Interestingly, the Orang Asli believe that this durian pre-dates commercialised varietals and is the true durian of the land.
“The Orang Asli say this is the original durian, before durian started to be cultivated into different varieties. This is where it all started, because this is an indigenous tree that naturally occurred – no one planted it,” explains Teoh.
At the moment, delivery of Biji Bumi Durians is only available in the Klang Valley. The brand sells most of the rarer durians (durian petai, durian susu, durian matahari) in 400 gram boxes at prices ranging from RM45 to RM54, without their shells.
Because most of the durians (except for durian bukit) are considered rare finds, each customer is only allowed to purchase one box of each durian varietal to ensure there is enough to go around for everyone.
Teoh and his team have been hugely encouraged by the response to their little social enterprise, and already have plans to expand their footprint to other states next year. Another budding dream is to launch a frozen range of durian to cater to the Singaporean market as well as clientele like bakeries that require durian all-year round.
Teoh says unlike many other businesses, he doesn’t worry about succession plans among Orang Asli growers i.e. whether the children will take over the family legacy. In fact, from what he has noticed, durian farming among the Orang Asli community is often a multi-generational family affair!
“The children recognise that their parents have planted durian trees for them, so they have to learn the tools of the trade, because eventually they will inherit those trees and can earn a livelihood from them.
“As long as the land remains there for them, I think the interest among the children is there,” summarises Teoh.
There are however limitations to Biji Bumi Durian’s growth and this is rooted in the Orang Asli’s farming approach, which allows for organic growth as opposed to intensive growth.
What this means is that there might be a point where consumer interest surpasses what the Orang Asli are able to harvest. Teoh admits as much but says this doesn’t faze him at all.
“There is a limit to how big we will be, but our main idea is to support the Orang Asli and if we are able to reach that scale and sell out of everything that is naturally falling, I think that would be great already because that means we are successful at what we do,” he says.
For the moment though, Teoh is content just to spread the word about Orang Asli kampung durians to a larger number of Malaysians.
“I dream of the day that people look at the kampung durian and say, ‘Oh, it is just as good as the Musang King because it has certain qualities that the Musang King doesn’t have,” says Teoh, laughing.
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