Serene Huang shares her adventure into the heart of kampong durian forest on the island of Pulau Ubin in search of the perfect fruit.
“The adventure begins at Changi ferry terminal on a bright Sunday morning. I’m here with my girlfriend, a local Singaporean; we’re off to visit the island of Pulau Ubin – I’ve never been, and it’s her first time there in 20 years. As we enter the departure area, the distinctive sweet, intoxicating smell of durian makes for the most intriguing of welcomes, a clue of what’s to come.
We assemble in the waiting area for sufficient passenger numbers to make the short 15-minute crossing financially viable for the captain of the curiously named “bumboat”. We board the vessel, which may well have been commissioned by Robinson Crusoe himself, with a feeling of excitement that we are indeed about to land on our very own treasure island.
Docking on Palau Ubin, you immediately get a sense that this island has changed very little in the past 50 years. Ramshackle timber and corrugated iron dwellings are packed tightly along the shoreline, surrounded by thousands of semi-corroded bicycles offered for hire by some of the island’s 100 or so permanent residents.
We take our bike and pedal hard for the aptly named kampong durian forest; we’re on a mission, after all. The aroma of citronella fills the air, ancient tall trees line the cycle route providing shade, relaxing sounds of insect noise fill the air, and butterflies float randomly from flower to flower. It feels like we’ve found our very own slice of paradise in the shadow of the sprawling metropolis that is Singapore.
Cycling towards the forest, we hear raised voices ahead; the road is dotted with small groups of durian hunters eagerly awaiting the next drop. Intrigued, we park our bikes and observe. Loud thuds of the giant fruit can be heard sporadically crashing 30 metres to the ground, followed by the immediate rush of people running into the forest looking for the fallen spoils. This is undoubtedly an incredibly dangerous folly, but the reward is easily justified to these avid hunters. The frequency of drops increases, and we look up to see a family of monkeys breaking the durians free. One man laughs: “The monkeys are toying with us; they only let the bad ones fall!” It seems like a case of monkey versus human is playing out for this most prized of fruits.
We cycle back to the central square – the time has come to sample this local delicacy. As we contemplate our selection, islanders arrive on pushbikes with their daily haul of spiky gold. They hand them over to the knife-wielding vendor who inspects them one by one – stalk lengths should be short, aroma strong and no sign of damage to the outer casing. Selecting an unopened durian can be a little like a game of Russian roulette.
We make our selection based purely on superficial judgment of the offerings and pay $7 for 900g. The old lady pushes her blade through the base of the shell, prying apart the husk to reveal the golden flesh within. Handing over the fruit half wrapped in yesterday’s news, she smiles: “This one is good.” We look at each other, grinning that we got lucky with our choice.
As we pluck the durian segments from the white pillowy interior, a distinct fruity yet somehow meaty aroma fills the air. We take our first bite of the gooey flesh, and the sweet and savoury taste is an absolute delight. It seems that the more you consume, the more it consumes you. I’ve never tasted anything like this before; the nation’s obsession suddenly makes sense.
I feel fortunate that my first durian experience was homegrown, falling from a tree less than a kilometre away and transported by bicycle to point of sale – a complete experience that couldn’t come any more organic.”
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