Sabah Eat: The Hunt for Red- & Orange-Flesh Wild Durians @ Kota Kinabalu
Both the red- and orange-flesh wild durians (野山榴莲) of Borneo are on my hunting list since I arrived in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. I have wanted to try them for many years but not able to do so since these exotic fruits can only be found in the wild of Borneo.
The red-flesh durian, known as “durian sukang” or “durian merah”, and orange-flesh durian, known as “durian dalit”, are not cultivated commercially since they are not as aromatic (or “smelly”) and tasteful than their higher-quality, yellow-flesh counterparts. Demands are comparatively lower and limited to curious foreigners and minority of locals.
In the city centre of Kota Kinabalu, durians can be found in many places and the most well-known spots are at:
“Durian Street” under a long and colourful bridge along Jalan Segamat
Fruit stalls in Pasar Besar Kota Kinabalu (K.K. Central Market)
Some stalls during Gaya Street Sunday Market (no-guarantee to be always there)
Be mindful that all fruits, including durians, are seasonal. Don’t turn up off-season and expect to find them or taste as good if can be found.
I checked off both the sukang and dalit durians from my hunting list at the Gaya Street Sunday Market — yup, I ate durians in the morning around 10am — and at Durian Street in the evening on the same day.
Here’s my story:
On a Sunday morning, in an alley off Gaya Street, I found some red-flesh durians in the local produces section of the Sunday Market.
Several stalls were selling durians but one stall had the seeds with red flesh (collectively called “arils”) wrapped up nicely in a styrofoam tray and ready to eat without having to pry open the spiky husk myself. The price was RM20 for a pack or RM25/Kg for the whole durian.
Note that despite all the propaganda about Sabah wild durians, they are not as aromatic or strong-tasting as their yellow-flesh cousins. Yet, they are priced much higher due to low availability and yet high demand by curious tourists — like me, but I knew beforehand they would not taste as nice.
The red-flesh durian had no durian aroma at all. The meat is creamy with a very faint-sweetness but no raw or unripe taste — imagine a strawberry milkshake that is super-diluted to a point of nearly tasteless. Some netizens described such taste as “unique-tasting” to keep readers fascinated.
After finishing the red-flesh, I went back into the main section of the Sunday Market to get an orange-flesh durian — I had spotted a stall selling it at RM30/Kg when scouting out the market earlier. I had hesitated at the price but since I had taken the first plunge, I might as well dive deeper. At the stall, I bought the last small dalit durian weighing about 400 gram (RM12), which was good enough for me. This time I had to buy the whole fruit with its spiky husk.
And ouch! The spikes were longer and much sharper than other durians — I managed to pry the husk apart easily but not without getting a few pricks on my fingers.
It’s tasting time again. Between the orange-flesh durian and the red-flesh, the orange one was a little more aromatic and more tasteful, but they tasted very different from their red cousin. The orange-flesh was similarly creamy but with a mild tangy-alcoholic flavour. Those who have never tried durians before and worried about the “pungent smell” should really start with this.
That was a total of RM32 (less than S$10). A small price for a satisfying experience and elation at accomplishing a long-time goal.
In the evening, after around 5pm, I went to the durian stalls “under the bridge” along Jalan Segamat (天桥下榴莲街) to have a go at the sukang red-flesh durian again to “double-confirm” its taste.
I met a China girl at one of the durian stalls who wanted to try the wild durians too, we decided to share. The price quoted for the wild durians was RM35/Kg whereas yellow-flesh durians ranged from RM8~25/Kg with the most expensive musang king (猫山王) durians priced at just RM25/Kg. After the stall owner opened one small sukang durian and saw only 3 red-flesh arils, he reduced the price to RM30/Kg on our requests. We agreed on RM20 for both the sukang durian and another small dalit durian.
Unlike the meaty durians that I had in the morning, the dalit durian I had here had much larger seeds and almost meatless, but the slight aroma was there and tasted a little closer to yellow-flesh durian with a mild alcoholic taste — albeit some mild difference in taste from the one I had in the morning.
On the other hand, the sukang durian had tiny seeds and more meaty but there were just three. As a gentlemen, I took only one just to confirm that sukang durian was near-tasteless.
I was fortunate to have met the girl to share the wild durians, otherwise, I would have just walked away after seeing the price tag since I had already tried some in the morning. Anyway, since the durians were albeit disappointing, I paid full for them — take it that I paid RM20 to chat with a pretty girl rather than for the durians.
After the durians, we shared a "tarap" (or marang, 沙巴果), another kind of fruit that is native to Borneo, at another stall for RM13 — the girl offered to treat this time. The stall owner claimed that tarap’s flesh had cooling effect, which was perfect for us after having the “heaty” durians. The fruit was a little big but just nice for two person.
It was very easy to pry the soft skin of the fragile fruit apart. The long spines on the skin were blunt and nice to feel. The white flesh of the fruit was very sweet and had a familiar jackfruit taste but much juicier. The seeds were small and round.
After all the high-calories intake, we skipped dinner and parted ways.
I have finally satisfied my curiosity for the wild durians — plus the tarap! And I will be sure to put my money on the more aromatic and stronger-taste yellow-flesh durians in future.
Curiosity has a Price:
For durian-lovers but first-timers who want to try durian sukang and durian dalit, it is perfectly fine to satisfy a curiosity. Just don’t expect it to be as good as commercial yellow-flesh durians and the price may be as high or higher than better-quality durians. If you have never thought about trying it, don’t start fueling that curiosity — but I know it has already started by the time you read this line.