Reclaiming Musang King, Malaysia’s durian royalty
Just under two hours’ drive from the nation’s capital Kuala Lumpur is Raub, a heavily forested district in the heart of the western Malaysian peninsula. In the industrial rush of the 1970s, the government encouraged farmers to pursue agricultural interests in rural areas. Farmers who stumbled upon this swath of jungle quite literally sunk their roots there: with the informal consent of the government, they planted and grew durian trees as squatters. Once farmers grew the trees to maturity, it was agreed, they would be issued land titles granting them ownership. The quiet understanding remained for nearly half a century, and Raub’s landscape has remained largely unchanged since then.
The Musang King name is synonymous with Malaysian durian, the crowning jewel of Malaysian food exports. Business has always been brisk for Raub durian farmers who largely specialise in growing the variety, prized in the export market — particularly amongst consumers from China who deem it the more exotic of the two varieties they have access to (the other being the monthong of Thailand.) “The texture and taste of the Malaysian [Musang King] is second to none in the world,” declared Shi Ziming, Commercial Counsellor of the Chinese Embassy of Malaysia, remarking on the success of Chinese imports of the durian variety.
As I make my way through the winding mountainous road leading to Raub, I spot the unmistakable setup: a roadside stall with a candy striped tarpaulin roof, under which tables and chairs are flanked by a mound of durian husks. Parking on the side of the road I arrive at the durian stall of Meng, a Raub native who is soft spoken but chatty. When I tell him I’ve just come from Kuala Lumpur on a durian tour of Malaysia’s roadside stalls, he’s intrigued, curious about what it’s like in the capital now, as he’s not been there since he was 20. (He’s now 70.) The durian business has managed to sustain him in the same spot by the main road into Raub in the intervening decades, he says, in which he trades with the kampung, or village, farmers nearby in an informal, cordial marketplace.
Meng’s stall is makeshift, and there’s little trace of his enterprise after he packs up for the day. When he’s trading, however, it’s an exhilarating operation: a meticulously arranged shelf of gleaming durian flesh peeking out beneath shiny clingfilm in styrofoam boxes, illuminated by lightbulbs dangling from the gazebo’s rafters. Meng’s neat calligraphy spells out each box’s variety and price in red marker.
According to Plant Variety Protection Malaysia, there are 199 durian plant varieties – or clones – registered to the Department of Agriculture. This does not include the many different wild kampung cultivars that are locally grown and consumed. Meng sells a rotation of 10 varieties ranging from the nameless local kampung durians he picks himself, all the way to the Red Prawn, a Penangese cultivar that he gets specially delivered from a friend in Penang every fortnight. As I chat with Meng beneath the gazebo, these varieties of durian waft nuanced fragrances that mix into each other.
“We have found a new gold and it’s durian,” said the then-Minister for Agriculture in 2018 to worldwide news outlets — a message that would portend trouble for the squatting farmers of Raub. In a process the Minister for Plantation Industries and Commodities, Datuk Seri Mah Siew Keong, termed “durian diplomacy”, Malaysia would heavily promote the export of this edible gold to the Chinese market. In 2018, the Prime Minister Najib Razak even presented the Chinese Ambassador to Malaysia with 43 Musang King durians to symbolise 43 years of diplomatic ties. In October last year, analysis showed that Chinese citizens were responsible for consuming US$15 million of the Musang King variety in the past year alone. In the 19th century Raub was a gold mining settlement, and in the 21st century it seems that status remains.
Like the precious metal, the desirability of Musang King inevitably begets sinister power struggles over who gets to control its production. Since late 2020 the Malaysian government has attempted to turf out farmers who have been growing the prized variety, citing the farmers’ status as illegal. As recently as January, government-backed militia installed a barrier blocking farmers from entering the spaces they have raised these trees, and their families, for half a century. Small stall holders like Meng worry this is the first in a series of steps that will rapidly lead to a gentrification of Musang King, where all the variety will be shipped elsewhere and eventually become a rarity for Malaysians.
When I ask Meng about the foreign conglomerate encroachment, his unassailably laidback attitude shifts to one of slight worry. “I’m a little concerned about this news about the Raub farmers,” he says in Mandarin, pointing out the sustained coverage of the land battle not only on the regional Chinese-language television channel, but through updates from the Save Musang King Alliance (Samka), a union of durian farmers battling their own eviction. “This is how they treat the people who have helped create Malaysia’s world famous durian heritage,” Meng points out, shaking his head. The future, he fears, is not looking good: “One day, no Malaysian will be able to eat Musang King anymore, and we will know why.”
“It’s bitter and creamy and velvety,” says Bernadette, describing the hefty chunk of Musang King plucked from a freshly cut open husk she’s tucking into. “Truly heaven in one’s mouth.” I get acquainted with Bernadette and her husband at the roadside durian stall of Nurain, a native of the eastern coast, as I travel downstream from Raub to the seaside town of Mersing.
Bernadette’s a durian enthusiast who, until recently, made the three-hour drive fortnightly from Singapore with her husband to sample the Musang King durians of different roadside durian stalls. She’s certainly not alone in her love for the variety. Prior to the pandemic, making the trip across the causeway from neighbouring countries — especially Singapore — to sample this specific variety was a common occurrence. Contingents of people on board luxury buses make the trip along both east and west coasts to embark on tasting tours in farms and roadside stalls alike.
A durian tree takes no less than six years to bear fruit, and the older the tree, the more delicious, rich, and nuanced the flavour. Every durian reflects terroir: from Gua Masang’s potassium- and insect-rich soil breeding the original Musang King variety, to what Nurain tells me is the slightly salty tinge of the wild Mersing kampung variety she hand-picks herself — a result of the trees’ proximity to the sea. No wonder, then, that durian degustation and informal knowledge exchange on cultivation and cultivars happens regularly as much in durian resorts and farmstays, as it does amongst strangers in roadside stalls.
In Mersing, as in all parts of the country, stalls just next to each other receive their durians from different suppliers, and tasting the difference between each stalls’ Musang Kings becomes a sport. In the motorcycle convoy of durian enthusiasts I am soon joined by, the tasters bite into one of each opened husk, swirl it around in the mouth, and look to each other. They nod vigorously. “This one’s creamier than that other stall we went to in Kuantan,” one mumbles, struggling to articulate through slurping the slippery fruit, eyes brightened and entirely engrossed. “The farmer said he harvests this one from an 80-year-old tree!”
Locals fear they will lose these varietal nuances to the monopolisation and homogenisation of Malaysian durian farms, should the sell-off to corporate foreign interests continue. The Raub eviction debacle has revealed a government willing to wrest the development of over half a century of complex flavours from the hands of the Malaysians who had the foresight to dream them up.
For many locals, however, this fight goes beyond just the protection of a durian variety; it’s a personal struggle by those who understand the multigenerational toil of growing durian trees. Words of encouragement proliferate in public avenues like the Samka Facebook page, where the evicted farmers keep supporters up to date with their struggle. One comment left by local resident Mr. Thai is a rallying call familiar to many: “We are all children from rural areas. We deeply understand the hard work of the farmers to have a harvest. We hope you will succeed in winning. Don’t give up!”
As I sit in traffic on the drive back to Singapore, the flavours peppered throughout this road trip come flooding back. Bitter, creamy, tangy, salty-sweet. I’m reminded that more of the world certainly deserves to taste these nuanced flavours, but the farmers responsible for bringing them to the world similarly deserve their dues. Support the farmers, cut out the middlemen; come to Malaysia and taste it for yourself. I know that’s what I’ll be doing when we are allowed to once again.
Photos: local durian variety in Sibu, Sarawak | roadside durian stand in Sarawak | Sourced founder Anna Sulan Masing with two different durians varieties.
Ashley Tan is a freelance journalist with a focus on identity. Her work has appeared in VICE, i-D, Refinery29, and more. Find her at ashtanwords.wordpress.com or on Twitter at @ashleytanwords.
Photo credits: all images by Anna Sulan Masing