How To Tell If Balik Pulau Durians Are The Real Deal?

The Star published an article about durians from elsewhere being passed off as those from Balik Pulau. How does one tell if a durian is really from Balik Pulau and not from Kulim, Bukit Mertajam or Taiping?

A pile Balik Pulau durians on the floor before sorting
Freshly picked Balik Pulau durians.

For most, a durian is a durian is a durian no matter where it is from. However, for the connoisseurs the subtle differences in taste can be very obvious. And Balik Pulau is said to produce the best durians anywhere.

If one has been savouring Balik Pulau durians long enough, one can tell the subtle difference in tastes between an ang heh from Balik Pulau and one from Batu Kurau. The one from Balik Pulau has a stronger pungent odour and a more intense taste that lingers longer in the mouth and hand.

First things first, we need to realise that most of the popular durians like ang heh, khun poh ang and hor lor are no longer harvested from the original trees. There can only be one original tree and from a specific plantation. Due to popularity and demand, they are stem grafted from the original tree or from stems from budding seeds and cultivated in other plantations to increase yield and profit.

These durians may not taste exactly the same as those from the original tree because of soil conditions and other geographical factors. Likewise, durians from other places just do not taste the same like those from Balik Pulau due to those same factors.

The telling characteristics of a specific durian cultivar are the shape, size and colour of the thorns, and the size and shape of the fruit itself. Truth be told, after so many years of savouring Balik Pulau durians, I am still not good at identifying a durian by those characteristics but a durian planter or seller can tell with just a glance which cultivar a durian is from.

The other characteristics to look out for are the shape of the pangsa (the compartments in the fruit that holds the flesh and seed), and colour, texture, taste and aroma of the flesh, and the size of the seed. Each cultivar has a specific colour and taste that is unique.

For example, cheh puay has flesh that is a shade of bright yellow with very creamy, sweet, rich and sticky texture. On the other hand, ang heh has a mild pleasant aroma, not overly sweet and has a smooth texture with hints of pink in the flesh and pangsa that resembles a big prawn, hence its name.

Durians, be they from Balik Pulau or elsewhere, share those same general characteristics. So how do we determine that a Balik Pulau durian as claimed by the durian seller is really from Balik Pulau?

The important fact to remember is that durian season in Balik Pulau usually lasts from June to August. Any durian that is claimed to be from there in other months is probably not genuine.

I remember a story that my cousin Peter recounted. He was at a durian stall selecting durians and asked the seller where those fruits were from.

“Balik Pulau,” the guy told him.

“Are you sure?” he asked.

“Yes, from Balik Pulau,” came the confident reply.

Now, Peter grew up in a durian plantation in Balik Pulau. Our great grandfather cultivated durians. So did our grandfather. Peter’s father who is my maternal uncle is still cultivating durians there. And he knew for sure that Balik Pulau durians were out of season then.

So he challenged the durian seller, “Lets go to Balik Pulau. If there’s even one single durian on the tree, I’ll eat the roots and twigs of that tree.”

There was not another peep from the durian seller after that. Peter caught the durian seller red handed but imagine how many unsuspecting customers the seller had cheated and profited from. The only way to ensure that the durian is genuinely Balik Pulau is to personally pick the fruit after it has dropped from the tree. Otherwise, one has to trust the durian seller. That is also the reason why I only get my Balik Pulau durians from the one source that I can trust.

Balik Pulau Durian Feast 2012

Our recent trip to Penang was to feast on durians, this being the season for it, and to spring clean my apartment. I had engaged two cleaners to mop and help me clear some of the unwanted items. The last time the apartment was cleaned was two years ago. The floor was thick with dust, as was everything else. The five hours of cleaning resulted in ten garbage bagful of things that I no longer have any use for. The next trip will be for packing the remaining items in boxes.

A pile Balik Pulau durians on the floor before sorting
Freshly picked Balik Pulau durians.

The day after the spring cleaning, we headed to Balik Pulau. I had pre-ordered three durians for Wuan and myself from Ah Wong of Stall 808 which is across the road from the Balik Pulau bus terminal and market. Ah Wong is my cousin Peter’s cousin. He is a durian wholesaler that we have been patronising for many years. His wife also makes the delicious lempuk durian which is a paste of durian and sugar stirred in a kuali over a slow fire for at least four hours until it thickens and turns a dark shade of brown.

Balik Pulau
Balik Pulau durian – hor lor (bottle gourd).

When we arrived at Ah Wong’s house which also doubles up as his durian stall, we had to wait for him for almost half an hour. He was at the plantation collecting durians to transport them back to the stall. The first durian we had came fresh from the plantation. It is called “hor lor” in Hokkien which means bottle gourd because of the shape of its pulp. Its flesh is firm and pleasantly sweet with a subtle hint of bitterness.

Balik Pulau
Balik Pulau durian – ang chui mua (red sarung).

The second fruit we had was called “ang chui mua” or red sarung. I have no idea why it is named as such. Perhaps the original tree was used to hang red sarungs to dry. Wuan and I have never eaten this fruit before. The flesh is a bright orange and slightly soft. Some of the seeds are stunted and small (chew hoot). It is sweet with a strong taste of bitterness. The core of the fruit is enlarged (tua sim) which made it difficult to open.

Balik Pulau
Balik Pulau durian – hor too (porcupine).

While we were enjoying the two durians, Ah Wong went off to collect more durians from the plantation. When we were done, and waiting for him, Wuan went over to the pile of durians to pick one of the smaller fruits to practice shaking the durian. The sound and sensation of the pulp moving inside while it is being shaken indicates that its flesh is firm. If there is no sound when shaken, the flesh could be mushed. Firm flesh is preferred over mushed ones.

When Ah Wong came back, he asked what kind of durian we wanted to eat next. Wuan wanted something creamy and bitter. Incidentally, the durian that she used to practice shaking with had bitter and creamy flesh. The durian was called “hor too” or porcupine. Again, I have no idea why it is named after a porcupine. Perhaps its shape has a likeness to a porcupine or the animal was spotted frequently near the tree before it was given a name.

Its flesh was pale, not an attractive feature in durians. The preferred colours are bright yellow, orange and pinkish. However, to our surprise, it was creamy and very sticky. It was moderately sweet but had a very bitter taste with a strong aftertaste of licorice. That was also the first time we had “hor too” and we liked it very much, irrespective of the colour of its flesh. Its unique licorice aftertaste was very unusual. That was one durian we would not mind having more of.

Balik Pulau
Balik Pulau durian – cheh puay (green skin).

With some room in our tummies still, we got Ah Wong to open another durian for us. He recommended “cheh puay” or green skin. This is one fruit we have been eating here for the past few years. Its flesh was a shade of bright yellow, very creamy, sweet, rich and sticky. I had to wash it down with some water after my second mouthful because of its stickiness. Needless to say, this is one of our favourites too.

The durian harvest for this year is rather small. The continuous rain during the blooming phase had caused many of the buds to fall off. In a week or two, the durian season in Balik Pulau will end. The quality of the durians at the tailend is usually lower. It was fortunate that we were in Penang at the peak of the season. We had a pick of some of the better durians. Finally, our craving for durians for this year was totally satiated.

Ah Beng Best Penang Char Koay Teow

Char koay teow is an institution by itself in Penang. Every decent kopitiam, market, food court and pasar malam (night market) will have at least one stall dishing out greasy portions of this staple to diners from early morning till late night. Char koay teow stalls can easily be identified by the clanging of frying ladles against wok, the unmistakeable aroma and sometimes spicy fumes that could choke nostrils to the extent of inducing bouts of sneezing and coughing.

The basic ingredients are koay teow (flat rice flour noodles), taugeh (bean sprouts), heh (prawns), hum (cockles), koo chai (chives), lap cheong (Chinese waxed sausage), hiam cheo cheoh (chili paste) and eggs. What makes one char koay teow unique from another is the sauce and the add-ons such as crab meat, extra large prawns and mantis prawns. I must say that I am not a fan of extra large prawns in my char koay teow, preferring medium sized prawns with a generous portion of koay teow.

The hawkers have their own secret recipes for the sauce which they jealously guard from their peers. It will take more than a generous amount of money and persuasions, gentle or otherwise, to convince them to part with that secret. Apparently, from what I gathered from years of eating char koay teow, the sauce contains a blend of light soya sauce and fish sauce, among others.

Having said that, the clincher for an irresistible plate of char koay teow is, undoubtedly, how well the hawker is able to control the heat in the wok, which the Chinese calls “tiah khee” or “wok hei”, meaning “Qi of the wok”. Too much and everything in the wok becomes charred; too little will leave the dish with a “half-cooked” essence. Getting the wok to that right temperature is a skill that takes years of practice to perfect.

When I was growing up at Jalan Terengganu in Penang, I used to patronise the char koay teow hawker near the small roundabout at Caunter Hall. It was just down the road from where I lived. We all called him Ah Beng although we never knew for sure if that was his real name.

Ah Beng operated from a tricycle cart parked on the pavement. He used charcoal fire which is believed to make the koay teow more fragrant. Whenever he wanted a bigger flame he would tug on a cord to manually spin a small fan that fed more air into the mouth of the stove, and as a result stirred up sparks and embers that added more drama to his frying antics.

Those days, one could bring an egg or two from home to be added to the koay teow without extra charge even though the hawkers had eggs by the trayful at their stalls. That was exactly what I used to do then to get 20 sen off for a plate of Ah Beng’s char koay teow. Try that now and the hawkers would give you dirty looks and may even refuse to serve you.

I have never had a liking for cockles and chives. My usual order would be “mai hum mai koo chai”. And Ah Beng was always generous with bak eu pok (crispy pork lard) which made it even more palatable. There was little space to sit and enjoy his char koay teow where he plied his trade. I usually ordered take away. He would wrap them in used newspaper lined with a piece of banana leaf.

It has been more than two decades since I last had a taste of Ah Beng’s char koay teow. One day, he just did not open for business. Rumour swirled around on the reasons of his sudden disappearance. I was more concerned with not being able to get char koay teow that I grew up eating anymore. I have since moved on to appreciate char koay teow from other stalls. Like they say, the first is the best. No other char koay teow in Penang can quite compare to Ah Beng’s charcoal fired char koay teow stirred in with an egg brought from home. That was simply delicious beyond words.