Li Chuchu spent well over 40,000 yuan (US$5,817) to get her fill of durian, the thorny tropical fruit whose unique taste she craves.
Regarded by many in Southeast Asia as the “king of fruit”, durian is now in season. However, its pungent odor often leads to a love-hate relationship with the commodity.
Its fans sometimes describe its yellow meat as fragrant, butterlike custard, with hints of nuts or whipped cream. But others are repulsed by its smell, which has been compared to rotten eggs, turpentine or even sweaty socks.
The number of durian-lovers, such as Li, from Zhanjiang, Guangdong province, is growing fast in China, and last month she and 14 others from different parts of the country took a five-day trip to Malaysia, one of the countries in which durian is grown.
The group visited Kuala Lumpur, the capital, and Penang. Without going to attractions in the former such as Petaling Street and Independence Square – usually two “musts” for most tour groups – they went to two durian plantations instead.
There, they enjoyed all-you-can-eat durian buffets, even though the price per person for the five-day trip was equivalent to buying more than 300 kilograms of Musang King, the most recognized but expensive variety of Malaysian durian.
Li booked the trip through the online travel platform Ctrip, where the price per person was 37,999 yuan, excluding air tickets.
Durian is arguably the most fashionable and popular food in Asia, even more so than crawfish. Nearly 90 percent of the durians produced in Thailand last year were exported to China, while Malaysia is also eyeing the market.
In April, Thailand exported up to 56,000 metric tons of durian to China, a year-on-year increase of 700 percent.
Pattanan Jamphot, 58, who owns a 64,000-square-meter durian farm with 700 trees producing the fruit in the eastern Thai province of Chanthaburi, said almost all the output from her plantation is exported to China.
After being harvested, Pattanan’s durians are packed into boxes marked with Chinese characters at a roadside logistics facility. They are then shipped in containers on large trailers to Chinese consumers directly, a journey that takes just four to five days, Pattanan said.
Durians are increasingly being shipped overland instead of by sea due to falling costs, thanks to improvements to cross-border roads in Southeast Asia, said Adisorn Chanprapalert, minister-counselor at the office of agricultural affairs at the Thai embassy in Beijing.
The 114-kilometer Hongsa-Chiang Man Road, built in 2016, has cut the journey time between China and Thailand. The road, which runs through Laos, has halved the previous journey time by sea.
Just three years ago, selling durian could be a risky business, as transporting the fruit to China was time consuming.
Su Jiangshan, a Beijinger who owns an online fruit shop, said he lost almost 20,000 yuan in 2015 from durian sales.
Durian ripen in Thailand between May and September. But for both China and Thailand, the summer heat increases transportation risks for the fruit.
“It takes at least two weeks for my customers to receive their orders,” Su said, adding that it usually takes four to five days for his orders to reach the Laotian border with China and another four to five days to transport the fruit to Beijing by train or truck.
“Even though I used the Shun Feng cold chain express service to transport the durian to my customers, they requested refunds of more than 40 percent, as the fruit they received had already rotted,” Su said.
The durians Wang Congcong tasted in Malaysia. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
The improvements in cross-border transportation networks in recent years and the rise of internet commerce can directly connect durian farmers with consumers.
The growth of the durian market in China has been largely due to booming e-commerce platforms. A total of 80,000 Golden Pillow durians from Thailand sold in just one minute on T-mall, Alibaba’s business-to-consumer platform on April 17.
This came after Alibaba’s Chairman Jack Ma signed four memorandums of understanding with the Thai government on trade, investment, e-commerce and tourism.
Alibaba is reportedly spending about US$428 million in Thailand, the main durian exporter to China, as it aims to tap Chinese consumers’ appetites for Thai agricultural produce.
Ma said China is on its way to becoming the world’s largest consumer country, driven by rising incomes and a growing middle class of 300 million.
“There is no better time than now for trade-oriented countries to seize this opportunity to export to China as the country continues to open its doors wider for global trade,” Ma said at the signing ceremony in Thailand.
The MOUs signed between Alibaba and the Thai government enable the e-commerce giant to import fresh durian directly from Thai farmers.
Liu Xiang, a senior operations specialist for T-mall’s fruit and vegetable division, said this cooperation model saves time and money for consumers, as no middlemen are involved and journey time is shortened.
Zhang Can, a 42-year-old nurse living in Shanghai, said she bought five durians weighing between 5 and 10 kilograms in T-mall’s online mega sale “Taste Thailand” in April, but thinks she did not buy enough, as the price was almost the same as that in Thailand.
She said she was satisfied with her purchases, as the price per kilogram was less than 30 yuan and the pulp tasted very fresh because it had been transported directly from Thailand.
Adisorn, the Thai minister-counselor, also said his government approved a strategic fruit development plan in February aimed at making Thailand a major trading nation in tropical fruit, and also approved a project to build a “fruit corridor” in the east of the country. The government has decided to start with durian, coconut and mangosteen, and China is one of its main target markets.
This lucrative market is also attracting Malaysia.
Bloomberg reported that a durian festival held by the Malaysian government in November in the southern Chinese city of Nanning, capital of the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, resulted in about 165,000 people clamoring for a taste of thawed samples of Musang King.
Workers package durians at the TRL company in Malaysia. (XU KANGPING / FOR CHINA DAILY)
Ahmad Maslan, Malaysia’s deputy minister for international trade and industry, said the Malaysian government is studying ways to export durians whole, as currently only frozen durian pulp, durian fruit with seeds, and other byproducts such as cookies, are exported to China.
He said it is easier for Thai durians, rather than those from Malaysia, to be exported to China because Thai farmers pick durian when the fruit is still on the tree.
“Malaysian durian farmers normally wait for the fruit to ripen and drop to the ground rather than climb the tree to collect it, so the risk of dirt and pests on the whole fruit is deterring many countries from accepting Malaysian durian,” he said.
Maslan added that negotiations with China are underway and may lead to approval for whole-fruit exports within a year.
The ministry is also working with farmers on the use of nets and ropes to harvest the fruit before it hits the ground, he said.
China imported 4.4 million metric tons of fresh fruit last year valued at US$5.59 billion. Thailand ranked the top exporter by value of fresh fruit to the country, with Chinese imports reaching US$1.2 billion, – 21 percent of the total import value.
Thailand is also the world’s leading exporter of fresh durians. The country’s annual durian production leveled off at about 600,000 tons last year, according to the Thai Customs Department. Of this, 500,000 tons was exported to China.
With Malaysia’s 45,500 durian farmers excluded from the Chinese market for whole, fresh durians, prices for Malaysian durian products are relatively high.
Prices of Musang King durians are five to six times higher than those for Golden Pillow produce from Thailand. At Beijing’s Sanyuanli market, a frozen 5 kg Musang King durian can cost as much as 1,200 yuan.
Many major Chinese e-commerce platforms have introduced durian direct purchasing in Thailand and direct selling in China, but sales of Malaysian durian products on these platforms are still low, as most consumers continue to prefer fresh fruit.
As a result, many Chinese tourists are looking for a fresher but more expensive option – traveling to Malaysia directly to taste the fruit straight from the tree.
Li, from Zhanjiang, who joined one of these trips, said it was the most expensive she had ever been on, but she thought it was worthwhile as she not only sampled “the best durian in my lifetime”, but the trip was led by well-known Hong Kong gourmet and food critic Chua Lam.
On Ctrip, some trips to Malaysia range in price from 3,000 to 8,000 yuan, with 80 percent of them featuring durian buffets, farm visits or harvests.
In June, Wang Congcong from Beijing also traveled to Malaysia, but she failed to reserve a ticket to visit Bao Sheng Yuan, the best-known durian farm among Chinese lovers of the fruit, as it had been fully booked from March, three months before the Musang King ripen.
Wang, who bought a frozen Musang King durian for 500 yuan in Beijing earlier this year, said Thai and Malaysian durians taste different.
“Eating durian is like collecting stamps. Once you like the fruit, you want to taste all different varieties,” she said. Chang Teik Seng, the 57-year-old owner of Bao Sheng Yuan, has had to cut the number of visitors to the farm from 500 to 100 a day because those from China want more services.
Chang said that as Chinese visitors now only eat the best-quality durians, he decided to grow more organic durian trees and provide his guests with the choicest fruit falling from them within three hours.
But Chang refuses to export the durians he grows on his farm. “I’d rather that people come here and taste the flavors of the Malaysian varieties”, he said.
Never mind the smell, the taste matters
Chinese have grown increasingly fond of durian in recent years. However, opinion differs among durian-lovers in both China and the fruit’s countries of origin as to what makes it so delicious.
With a strong odor that can sometimes be overwhelming, they consider the texture of the pulp, rather than the fruit’s unique smell.
Hong Kong food critic Chua Lam said that in Malaysia most people like the Ochee, or “black thorn”, variety of the fruit, which grows in the northwest of the country.
With its rosy, flame-colored flesh, the Ochee durian has a medium-soft texture that Chua said is sticky and almost fiber-free, and is considered the most-prized variety in the country. It is served on many important occasions.
But most Chinese consumers prefer the Musang King variety, rather than the Ochee, as the former has a softer carpel, which Chua said “melts immediately in the mouth”. Musang King, whose flavor has been described by food reviewers as “caramel in whipped cream”, is also sweeter than Ochee.
A total of 126 durian varieties are registered in Malaysia, and 234 in Thailand.
But only 10 varieties are recognized and consumed by Chinese, who are extremely selective when it comes to the fruit’s taste and production standards.
Adisorn Chanprapalert, agricultural minister-counsellor at the Thai embassy in Beijing, said that unlike Chinese, most Thais, including himself, prefer durian with a harder texture, while in China the Golden Pillow variety, with its soft and creamy pulp, is in hot demand.
Adisorn said he is not sure why Chinese consumers are so obsessed with the soft texture in the mouth, but added that this may be a good thing, as it does not conflict with demand in Thailand.
Chua said he has no personal preference for durian, but added that everyone should try it at least once in their lifetime.