Of Natives, Durians and Mangustins. John Crawfurd’s Memoirs…

You may have had the recent pleasure of viewing the beautiful t-shirt depicting the 19th c. durian sketch commissioned by Major General William Farquhar, first Resident (yes, with a capital ‘R’) and Commandant of Singapore, as well as former resident of Malacca.  While his fluency in Malay, predisposition towards the lovely ladies of Malacca (or at least, the one he married), and beautiful rendition of the durian are sufficient grounds to give us confidence he was indeed an aficionado of the ‘fragrant’ fruit, we have yet to find written testament of this.

William Farquhar, durian aficionado

William Farquhar, probable Durian aficionado

John Crawfurd, durian aficionado

John Crawfurd, confirmed Durian aficionado

Stamford Raffles, unknown durian inclination

Stamford Raffles, unknown Durian inclination

Fortunately, one of his colleagues, namely The Honourable John Crawfurd, 2nd Resident of Singapore, did have a few things to say not only of the Durian, but also the mangosteen (or ‘mangustin’ as he wrote it).  John Crawfurd, fiesty and pragmatic Scot that he was, didn’t really get on with William Farquhar.  In fact, even Sir Stamford Raffles had his run-ins with John Crawfurd, principally regarding Crawfurd’s practical belief that the new colony of Singapore might as well legalize gambling, and enjoy its tax benefits.  On the other hand, Sir Stamford Raffles tried to press for an idealistic new order where not only gambling would be illegal, but (get this) even consumption of opium would be banned.  Crawfurd had the following to say in a letter he wrote in his defence to the East India Company headquarters in Calcutta:

The passion for gaming pervades all ranks of the two principal classes of our population, the Chinese and the Malays, to a most unusual and extraordinary extent, and I am clearly of opinion that in the relation which we stand to them, and the slender opportunities which we possess of reforming their manners and habits, the propensity, as far as our influence is concerned, is incurable.

So there you have you it.  Singapore remained a free port, and gaming revenues made up 20-25% of government revenues at any given time.  Interesting that Singapore is once again tapping into this ‘incurable propensity’, but I digress…. Suffice it to say, Crawfurd and Raffles were unlikely durian kakis (Malay equivalent to ‘buddy’).

Crawfurd kept good notes throughout his postings in Penang, Malacca and Singapore, which in 1820 were published in the three volume History of the Indian Archipelago.   Here I provide you with some excerpts, taken from Chapter 3 (Husbandry of Articles of Native Luxury) where he describes the mangosteen and durian:

Of the indigenous fruits, the Mangustin (Garcinia mangostana) is the first rank.  It is the most exquisite of the Indian fruits, and, indeed, of all known fruits.  It seems to meet the approbation of persons of the greatest diversity of tastes in other matters, whether that diversity arises from peculiarity of constitution, or from national habits and antipathies.  It is mildly acid, and has an extreme delicacy of flavour, without being luscious or cloying.  In external appearance it has the look of a ripe pomegranate, but is smaller, and more completely globular.  A rind about three lines in thickness, something hard on the outside, but soft and succulent within, encloses large seeds, or kernels, surrounded by a soft semi-transparent snow-white pulp, now and then having a very slight crimson blush.  This pulp is the edipble part of the fruit, and persons in robust health may, without prejudice, eat a much larger quantity of it than any other fruit.

And now, for his description of the durian (ideally, read aloud in a  Scottish accent):

The highest rank among the indigenous fruits, in the opinion of the natives, is given to the Durian, (Durio Zibethinus,) not at all excepting even the Mangustin, but most of strangers, from its peculiar and offensive odour, have at first a violent aversion to it.  When that aversion, however, is conquered, many fall into the taste of the natives, and become passionately fond of it.  The tree which bears the Durian is, among fruit trees, a lofty one.  The fruit, in external appearance, has some resemblance to the bread fruit, but is bigger, and the spines of the husk are larger and stronger.  As it ripens, its colour assumes a yellowish green.  It is near the size of a man’s head, sometimes spherical, but occasionally oblongated.  When ripe, it is easily divided with the grain, and, when opened, is found to consist of five longitudinal cells, each containing from one to four large seeds, as big as pigeons’ eggs, enveloped in a rich white pulp, itself covered with a thin pellicle, which prevents the seeds from adhering to each other.    This rich white pulp is the edible portion of the fruit.  -To my taste, the Durian excels all other fruits.  Though extremely rich and nutritious, and, one might almost say, partaking more of an animal than vegetable nature, it never cloys, or palls on the appetite, so that a taste for it rather increases than diminishes, and once thoroughly acquired, continues for life…

Descriptions of the durian, invariably tend to suggest the gradual development of an addictive, sinful craving for this large ‘head-sized’ fruit of rich pulp and seeds the size of ‘pigeon’s eggs’.  Perhaps its a good thing the fruit hasn’t made it to those distant shores.  Just imagine the disruption if events such as Wimbledon served durian (preferably Mau Sang Wang variety) rather than strawberries and cream?  “What, match point for Federer? Eh.. wait wait.. must try this soft one here…too delicious…”

To read a bit more about John Crawfurd, check out Blogging.. Walk the Talk.

I’ll soon add some additional excerpts and images of some delicious new varients I tried earlier this week…

"...it never cloys, or palls on the appetite, so that a taste for it rather increases than diminishes, and once thoroughly acquired, continues for life..."

"...it never cloys, or palls on the appetite, so that a taste for it rather increases than diminishes, and once thoroughly acquired, continues for life..."

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Durian is the King and Mangosteen is the Queen

Mangosteens sold by the Kilo

Mangosteens sold by the Kilo

In the last episode of high octane durian consumption, I neglected to mention that apart from the lovely “King of fruits”, we also indulged in the very delicate and lovely “Queen of fruits”. Despite its name, the mangosteen is nothing like a mango and certain doesn’t taste like one either. Usually in simultaneous season as the durian, the mangosteen is thought to be the “yang” factor (while the durian is the “yin”) and is supposed to balance out the “heatiness” of the durian. Whether this eastern medical prescription is true in the western scientific sense, isn’t really important when you consider that the mangosteen is able to complement the flavor of the durian by its own intensity of sweetness.

I’ve heard and seen many a health food store now touting the  benefits of mangosteen juice, sold in bottles and cans which have the appearance of ribena. Just this evening in the office, we broke open a packet of dehydrated mangosteen (courtesy of Thailand) which kind of tasted like rubbery barbeque chips [ more on this in another entry].

Basically, preserving the mangosteen doesn’t really do it any justice and please – never eat any derivative and think that it provides you a true reflection of the flavor of the fruit.

For the benefit of readers who haven’t had the luxury of trying fresh mangosteens, I’d like to put a few tips and pointers up so that you can appreciate the details of the fruit when you do get a chance to eat one (or a whole bag, as it usually happens).

Mangosteen base sepal

Mangosteen base sepal

Firstly, the color. Mangosteens are a deep purple with a smooth,armoured and brittle exterior. (Apologies for this fuzzy photo, my camera didn’t shoot too well under low light so I might have to re-do this one in the future.)

Mangosteens vary in size and at smallest resemble a squash ball and can be as large as tennis balls or snooker balls. On the top of the fruit, you will usually see a green stem with the sepals of the fruit. On the bottom there is always a pretty design of the flower as pictured here on the left. By counting the number of “petals” of the flower, you can estimate the number of mangosteen fruit sacs it contains.

For example, this one has 6 and when you open it you can see that there are indeed 6 fruit sacs.

Pearly White Flesh of the Mangosteen

Pearly White Flesh of the Mangosteen

The flesh within is usually pearly white and sometimes almost translucent. If you examine the fruit sacs closely, the surface resembles threads which have been spun and interwoven into a fine silk. The seeds within each fruit sac can be approximated to the size of the fruit sac. The larger the fruit sac, the larger the seed. The small fruit sacs often have no seeds at all and are the best to eat.

The seeds are small enough to swallow, although some of us do and some of us don’t. It’s a matter of preference.

Crispy Mangosteen

Crispy Mangosteen

Sometimes, the flesh isn’t pearly white but a translucent grey. I personally am not a fan of these but some of my colleagues are completely in love with these and relish finding one as though they are gems among stones. The flesh is known as “crispy” or “crunchy” and not soft like the usual ones.

Here on the left, you can also clearly discern the outer husk/shell of the mangosteen, its inner pulpy protective layer (similar to the whitish peel of the orange) and the juicy interior.

For travellers to Malaysia and Singapore, please note that in hotels there are usually signs which tell you what is prohibited in the hotel. Most places now prohibit smoking, but they also prohibit 2 particular fruits, namely the durian and the mangosteen.

Why? Firstly durians for its pungent aroma, which once circulating in the aircon vent is notoriously difficult to eradicate. Secondly, mangosteens for their purple juice (from the interior shell) which stains all fabrics indiscriminately and permanently, making it a living nightmare for the laundrette. Even washing your hands after a dessert of mangosteens can be a challenge at times.

As I was lucky to have many expert mangosteen eater/openers with me on this particular outing, I asked SW for a demonstration on how to best open a mangosteen without injuring yourself (some people use sharp objects but this is a recipe for disaster) or staining yourself, evoking the ire of whoever is in charge of your laundry.

Mangosteen Opening Technique

Mangosteen Opening Technique

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Useful tips when eating Mangosteen:

1. Have a toothpick ready to pick at the fruit if you don’t want to use your fingers

3. Always have tissues handy

4. Preferably have drinking water ready

5. Avoid using tissues until the end of your feast as the juice is very sticky

6. Do not touch any other fabric with your hands

7. Have a wet tissue / towel at hand for wiping up

8. Give your hands a good wash with water

9. Try eating it together with Durians- it brings out the flavor better

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Hope this helps and enjoy the fruit!

The Red Prawn Durian a.k.a Ang Hae

Fight for your Durian!

Fight for your Durian!

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About 3 weeks ago, my colleagues from Hong Kong were in town for some training and in the usual and customary hospitality of a Malaysian, we had to take them to sample Bak Kut Teh and Durians. These are the two things you definitely will have trouble locating quality samples of in Hong Kong. Hong Kong, being primarily Cantonese (this is a dialect of Chinese) don’t have Bak Kut Teh, which is a dish by Hokkiens and Teo Chew dialects. Durian wise, Hong Kong’s proximity to Thailand means that most of the fruit sold in markets there are of the one Thai species. Consistent, but lacking in complexity in species.

OK, speaking of Hokkien things, Bak Kut Teh is Hokkien and Penang is predominantly Hokkien in population base. So there are two Hokkien related foods in this entry then but I won’t be delving into Bak Kut Teh as we have to stay focused on our main topic- Durians!

4 Different Durian Varieties

4 Different Durian Varieties

As there were 7 of us, its just one of those things where everyone tries to be polite and to say “You take it first…” “No, no, you take one first”. So in order to get things going, I asked everyone to put their hands in and grab a piece for this shot. Once we get going, being shy is no longer an issue.

We had 4 varieties that night, the D101, the XO, the Red Prawn and Mau Sang Wang. The durian which had exceptional flavor and was declared the overall winner of the evening was the…. Red Prawn!

The Red Prawn Durian - "Ang Hae"

The Red Prawn Durian - "Ang Hae"

The Red Prawn or “Ang Hae” in Hokkien, is a hybrid graft from Penang and so named for its characteristically orangey flesh (which I suppose could be likened to the orange pigment seen in boiled prawns). This particular durian that we had was the most spectacular of the lot that day. The seeds were tiny and the flesh had the consistency and coloration of peanut butter. Taste-wise it was bitter sweet with a slightly alcoholic, fermented kick at the end.

One of the problems with durian is that the smell of it only heightens the activity of your tastebuds to prepare your salivary glands with what they are going to have to deal with next. This Red prawn had us salivating and as there was only the precious one durian (packed into 2 boxes) all 7 of us polished it off without so much as a “please please you first” or a “would you like another”.

If you haven’t tried Ang Hae, I highly recommend it but make sure that it is very ripe for eating, some people like it firm but that seems a little raw to me, its best when the flesh needs to be teased and stretched to breaking point, with the texture of  well-kneaded dough and fresh blu-tak. The flesh should be dripping into your fingers so that you have the pleasure of licking your fingers when you’re done.

Fishball noodle soup for Lunch and Durians for Dinner

We went to one of our favorite lunch spots today, the famous Ah Koong fishball noodles and there we plotted and schemed for the evening’s outing to a durian stall. Well, this isn’t a general food blog by any means, but I can’t resist putting up a few photos of our lunch for the benefit of TW who used to lunch here with me and I’m sure misses it like hell since he’s been back in NY.

Tom Yam fish ball and Fishcake

Tom Yam fish ball and Fishcake

This little eatery, which is open 7 days a week and from lunch til early dinner, is well famous and located next to Shaw Parade in Pudu. For the benefit of our readers who aren’t familiar with these strange looking dishes, fishballs are made of fish (but not the sex gonads), the flesh of white fish are minced and rounded up into small balls which are maybe half the size of a table tennis ball and boiled to a springy consistency. What makes fishballs delectable are the following criteria:

1. Freshness & Quality of the fish used in its preparation

2. Springy Texture, should be bouncy and not heavy and certainly not starch laden either

3. Size – you definitely do not want them too big and should be able to eat it in a bite or two

The same generally applied to fishcake (as seen on the bottom right) which is the same but in a different shape format.

Accompaniments such as chillis, okra and brinjal

Accompaniments such as chillis, okra and brinjal

It is the usual thing to do when you get there to place your orders at the cook counter. Chinese meals are usually a group activity and most patrons turn up in groups of 2 or more. First you select your noodles, there are five types mainly: kway teow (a flat broad rice noodle), mee hoon (a narrow, skinny spaghetti like noodle), mee pok (a flat broad yellow noodle as pictured on the right), mee (a yellow spaghetti type noodle) and mee tai mak a.k.a loh shee fun (hmm its hard to describe this, an English literal translation is mouse-tail noodle… so use your imagination).

The noodles come with the usual set of 3 fishballs, fishcake and vegetables. You can request it with or without soup, in a tom yam broth or with curry and clams. Lots of variations to keep you coming back for more. As a side dish, we usually add on stuffed red chillis, brinjals and okra, all of which adds more nutritious flavor and variety to the meal.

Mixed Mee and Mee Hoon Soup

Mixed Mee and Mee Hoon Soup

In usual chinese fashion, the steaming hot soup bowls are delivered with chopsticks and a soup spoon (Ah Koong has upgraded the quality of their utensils recently). You may request a fork and spoon if you are unfamiliar with these eating tools.

Here’s a photo of my lunch, you can see the green condiments on the top right which consist of spring onions and coriander, a boiled fishball on the left and a fried fishball (light brown) on the lower right. The darker colored stuff next to the brown fishball is seaweed (iodine component). This is all served in a piping hot broth.

Oh yes, I forgot to say that there are some noodles that you can mix, in this photo, you can identify 2 different types of noodles – the mee (yellow spaghetti) and the mee hoon (skinny white spaghetti).

NB. I took this picture half way through my meal so some of the other accessories to the noodles have already been consumed.

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Onto the Durian chapter. We were starving by 8pm despite the huge meal and DL hadn’t eaten all day (she didn’t join for lunch) and was complaining about what we ought to have for dinner as she doesn’t eat durians (yes, she’s not a fan). ML was hungry too, although she wouldn’t admit it and we only found out when the declaration was made upon the appearance of the food. We ultimately decided to dine at Soo Kee, opposite our favorite (and most convenient) durian stall.

It seemed to be a slow evening for Friday, by 9pm, there were still plenty of durians pegged to the wooden racks, waiting for takers. The stall owner also said that it was a slow night and that it was perhaps the extremely hot weather and somewhat dire economic conditions that kept customers away. “Durian prices are like the stock market,” CL proclaimed loudly, “when there is a lot of supply, the prices go down”. True, the prices last time we ate here was RM35/Kg for the Mau Sang Wang and tonight it had dropped to RM 28/Kg. Well, we made up for the low prices by going for volume.

Rich, creamy and pungent Mau Sang Wang Durians

Rich, creamy and pungent Mau Sang Wang Durians

Ok, I won’t make you wait any longer to see the photos of the Mau Sang Wang Durians. Here they are, rich, creamy, golden yellow. Everyone probably has different preferences of how they would like to eat their durians, but I like mine with an appearance of firm skin, which gives way to touch and literally melts under your fingertips. Last night, the MSW’s were no disappointment, the flesh was full and the seeds were small. These durians were of just a nice size, not too big and not too small.

It is hard to tell exactly how many seeds there are in a long segment of the durian fruit, simply because the flesh compartments seal against each other and unless you pry them apart with your fingertips, it can often be deceiving.If you look at the photo on the left, you can see that the segments in the front of the picture (which have been touched) show the discrete fruit sacs quite clearly whereas you would have to guess how many there are in the segment further back.

The reason why I bring this up is because last night, I reached for what I thought was 2 durian seeds next to each other. I prompted CL to assist me in breaking it apart, effectively taking the other seed as her reward. But we were deceived! There was only one seed within and after a second or two of concerted effort, we realised that we still require more practice recognizing the difference between one seed and two.

Of course, since I was the one who picked up the fruit first, I would have to eat the entire thing (it was large) with her fingerprints in it and all…..

Firm skin appearance but extremely soft to touch

Firm skin appearance but extremely soft to touch

Durian has been likened by many to a soft french cheese. Given that I also enjoy stinky cheeses (often eaten with SW) it is probably no surprise that people with a keen sense of smell and taste and a high sense of appreciation of intense flavors will enjoy durian. There is a difference though. French cheeses often taste somewhat salty to me and the odours of mould do not really compare with the natural sweet-bitter aroma of fruit.

My uncle told us last weekend that durian is accompanied well by wine of any sort, and that the wine serves to enhance the flavor of the durian. SW and I have yet to attempt this, we’re thinking durian sangria…

Blackberry ruler for my durian

Blackberry ruler for my durian

It looks like a lot of durian doesn’t it? it is actually quite a substantial meal/dessert so usually it requires planning as we always want to make sure we can enjoy our sumptuous durian meals.

In case you’re wondering, why doesn’t stinky spikes give us some perspective on sizes, I’ve decided that my blackberry Bold makes a good ruler, going along the theme of fruits here…. If you haven’t got a blackberry Bold, I’m sure you can find someone who has one and get an idea of the size.

(had to wipe the blackberry down after this photo)

I forgot to mention that we ordered one other type of durian which we’ve discussed in this blog before, the Bamboo durian or “Chook Keok”. Here it is on the right, a little more bitter and flesh a little firmer than the MSW but you have to appreciate the difference that each species brings.

Bamboo Durian

Bamboo Durian

These durians are from Pahang. I recently had some durians which are from Penang, actually meant to post them up but I didn’t get round to sorting out those photos yet. I’ll put it up soon.