Today, our “food chain” is ever more globalized, or spatially stretched with the source regions of many agricultural commodities far from consuming regions. The distant sourcing of food is not new, but the diversity and volume of globally traded agricultural products has increased exponentially over the past 30 years. This is especially true for the trade and consumption of tropical fruit; between 1990 and 2017, the annual global import demand for pineapple, mango, and papaya, for example, has increased by 11%, 10%, and 9%, respectively (Altendorf 2017). In addition to these big three, guava, starfruit, cherimoya, and jackfruit are now commonly found in Western supermarkets. The reasons for the meteoric rise of tropical fruit consumption among high and some middle income consumers varies from the reduction or elimination of trade tariffs, deployment of refrigerated shipping containers and advanced logistics, the desire among affluent consumers for increasingly healthy and nutritional food that is a component of the ‘quality turn’ in food consumption, and demand from increasing immigrant populations.
One tropical fruit that has made a recent appearance in long distance trade is the durian, known as the ‘king of fruits’ in some Southeast Asian countries. Considered a special fruit because of its substantial weight, thorny husk, pungent aroma and distinct seasonality, cultivated durian has been part of the traditional complement of fruit trees grown in many villages of Southeast Asia (Figure 1). Its cultural significance is deeply rooted as durian is the subject matter of folktales, poetry, and idioms; images of the fruit are found on the ninth century bas-relief panels at the Borobudur temple complex in central Java.
Today, however, the whole fresh fruit has become an internationally traded commodity especially as exports to East Asia, particularly China. In processed pulp, paste, and puree form, durian has also become an important ingredient in ice cream, cookies, cakes, coffee, chocolate, and even pizza. McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and KFC in Asia regionalize their menus using durian flavoring in their specialty items. Indeed, durian’s meteoric rise in popularity over the past 20 years has been so striking that it can be described as a fetishized commodity. In North America and Europe, whole durian fruit and its processed byproducts have been common in Asian grocery stores for the past decade (Figure 2) and are now appearing in some non-ethnic specialty super markets in the U.S. Amazon will now deliver frozen durian to your doorstep!
This paper first introduces durian as a tree and fruit, describing its ecology, morphology, hybridization, and of course its taste and odor. Next, it offers possible reasons for its recent fetishized status, most influentially based on nostalgia in Malaysia and status seeking in China. The heart of the paper then focuses on trade patterns, including Thailand’s near monopoly on global exports and efficient production methods, but also Malaysia’s bottom-up, pioneered durian-based tourism attracting both domestic and foreign travelers. Currently, Malaysia is also eyeing the perceived gold mine of durian exports to China, but exporting a higher value product than its Thai competition. Lastly, the paper explores present and possible negative environmental impacts of the durian boom in Thailand and Malaysia, through loss of genetic diversity and deforestation, respectively.
The durian tree is native to Insular Southeast Asia with Borneo possessing the greatest species diversity (Brown 1997). In forests, trees grow up to 120 feet, but in orchards mature trees often only reach up to 40 feet (Figure 3). The tree grows best on well-drained slopes up to 1000 feet with granitic derived lateritic soils (Brown 1997). It is a member of the Malvaceae family and genus Durio of which there are approximately 30 species, but the vast majority of commercially cultivated durian are from the single species Zibenthinus whose edible flesh commonly ranges from shades of white to yellow to orange (Figure 4). Durio is derived from the Malay word duri meaning thorn, and because of the existence of approximately 50 vernacular names based on variants of durian in Indonesia and Malaysia, the fruit was most likely spread by migrating or trading Malays. Even in Thailand and Burma where durian spread in pre-modern times, the fruit is spelled tú rian and dùyìn, respectively.
The life cycle of a durian fruit begins as a quite beautiful flower found in clusters that grow from older woody branches during the dry season (Figure 5).
The fruit requires three to five months to ripen, depending on the variety (Figure 6); the durian seasons vary across Southeast Asia, but are most common between May through September. Durian fruit varies in size and shape but often grows to the size of a bowling ball or football and can weigh from four to eight pounds, and depending on the variety, turns from bright green to tan when ripening.
The edible flesh or arils of commercial durian of which there are usually five can account for up to 30 percent of the fruit’s weight (Figure 7). While trees can produce fruit when six years old, it is a well-accepted fact that superior tasting durians come from taller trees over 20 year old that are able to yield up to 150 fruit each season.
Beginning primarily in the 1970s and continuing today, hundreds of varieties or hybrids have been developed by either durian orchard owners or government agricultural experiment stations in Thailand and Malaysia aiming to produce fruit with the desired taste and texture (Brown 1997). Adopting the technique used much earlier for many other fruits, these efforts apply stem grafting, whereby a small cutting from a tree with the desired taste is grafted to an existing base of an older tree since trees grown from seed are not “true to seed” and produce variable tastes and textures (Figure 8). The result has been the commercialization of a variety of “branded” durians each carrying its own price tag and social status, as whiskies, for example, experienced in the West. Much like the quality turn in a whole host of foods, Montanari (2011) describes this “refinement” process in durian as the differentiation of a once common object and the transition from eating to tasting. Two of the most important varieties in terms of the global trade are the mild tasting and muted scent Monthong from Thailand and the far more rich and odoriferous Musang King from Malaysia.
Durian is notable for its odor. Few other foods are as identified by smell than that of durian; indeed the fruit is banned from public transport and hotels in Southeast Asia (Figure 9). The perceived offensive odor is actually the byproduct of ripening in which an existing high level of sulfur-containing compounds or ‘disulfides’ increases as the fruit ripens and continues once off the tree (Young 2017). While some durian varieties are far more odiferous than others, Julia Child described durian’s odor as being like “dead babies mixed with strawberries and Camembert” (Phillips 2012). Likewise, Anthony Bourdain told a journalist that one’s breath odor after consuming durian smelled “as if you’d been French-kissing your dead grandmother (Serena 2018). I am not sure about the dead body theme, but I prefer the less sensationalized description of natural scientist Alfred Russell Wallace when tasting durian in 1840s Borneo:
[I]ts consistency and flavour are indescribable. A rich butter-like custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but intermingled with it come wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, brown-sherry, and other incongruities. Then there is a rich glutinous smoothness in the pulp which nothing else possesses, but which adds to its delicacy (Wallace 1962, 57).
The modern Western revulsion toward durian is traced to the late colonial period when European, and especially British colonial rule, imposed more rigid social boundaries between the ruler and ruled, resulting in the “stinky” king becoming a symbol of being uncivilized and “quintessentially native” (Montanari 2017, 410). Today, many first time tasters will in fact claim that once you get past the odor, the taste of durian flesh is quite delightful and negative reactions to the fruit’s odor results from old, over-ripe fruit.
The global fresh and processed durian market, the latter including pulp, paste and puree products, was valued at $9 billion in 2018 and is expected to grow significantly, particularly in East and Southeast Asia. In Malaysia, the epicenter of the durian refinement process, consumption per capita has increased from 10.5 lbs. in 1991 to 24.2 lbs. in 2016. China’s per capita consumption, though small, dramatically increased between 2006 and 2016 from 0.15 lbs. to .46 lbs. and is expected to reach 2.2 lbs. by 2030 (DGMR 2019), and while individually does not seem significant, remember that it is a three-fold increase in a country of 1.3 billion where only a small, but growing percent of the population consume the fruit. Even though durian is not native to Taiwan and Hong Kong, the per capita consumption rates of 7.0 lbs. and 2.3 lbs., respectively, are high as well. No single reason, however, is sufficient to explain the cultural, social and economic processes leading to the dramatic rise of durian consumption.
For Malaysia, increased consumption has much to do with rapid rural to urban migration beginning in the 1970s, particularly among ethnic-Malays. Urbanization and industrialization has engendered a sense of rural nostalgia and durian is the ultimate cultural icon for this loss of community. Indeed, a study from the mid-2000s indicated that 63 percent of urban Malaysians who return to their home villages for visits do so to consume durian (Rohzan 2006). Thompson (2020) observes that this rural nostalgia is less about villages (kampung) and more about the orchards (kebun) they miss. A host of durian orchards in the countryside and near cities have opened their doors to guests so they are able to taste the fruit at its most local. In addition, and durian festivals and competitions sponsored in part by state agricultural departments have proliferated in an effort to boost small-scale agriculture. Companies and local politicians periodically arrange durian gustation parties, for their employees and constituents, respectively, again to promote a sense of community lost. Whether Malay or Chinese, Malaysians and Singaporeans take great pride in their durian culture and this pride satisfaction in part functions as a marker of cultural identity.
In East Asia and especially China, the dramatic growth of durian consumption fed by imports is caused by somewhat different reasons. The rapidly growing consumer-oriented middle class, estimated to be between 300-400 million, has taken on experimenting with new foods as a form of status seeking and cultural capital (Bourdieu 1984), While China has imported Thai durian since the early 2000s, Chinese tourists to Hong Kong were also exposed to Thai durian as it is sold there in a wide variety of retail venues (Figure 10). Subsequent tourist trips to Malaysia and Singapore exposed them to a much greater diversity of durian varieties with stronger tastes, pungent odors, and varying textures. These visits allowed them to taste the tropical and exotic ‘in their natural settings’ (Cook 2004, 645) and is part of the booming food tourism market in Southeast Asia . In addition to its reputed health benefits, social media blogs have popularized the fruit, as music and film artists from China, South Korea and Taiwan post images of their durian consuming adventures to a legion of followers.
Interregional trade and tourism flows often support each other, and nowhere is this more true than between East and Southeast Asia, as their respective regional economies have become closely integrated (Shan and Wilson 2001). An expression of this integration is durian’s growing inter-regional popularity based on the average annual growth in the value of exports and imports during the 2010-2018 period (Figure 11).
Demand for imports has grown rapidly. Starting at an almost nonexistent import base, South Korea experienced a 549 percent average annual growth rate between 2010-2018. Even in a traditionally high consumption country like Singapore, import growth over the eight year period also rose significantly to satisfy increased domestic demand, as is the case with Brunei. After importing durian for almost 10 years, China’s middle class appetite for durian registered an average annual growth rate of almost 35 percent. Much like with a host of other globally sourced commodities, from coal to soybeans, China consumes 66 percent of fresh global durian exports, with imports rising in value from $184.7 million in 2010 to almost $850 million in 2018 (Figure 11) and accounting for almost 16 percent of all fruit imports; in 2019, the value of fresh imported durian ranked first, just ahead of Chilean cherries.
While the import side is more geographically diverse, the export flows primarily involve Thailand and Malaysia; Indonesia is actually the largest durian producer in the world, but almost all production is consumed domestically. The export behemoth is Thailand, accounting for over 95 percent of global exports amounting to $947 million in 2018, and an average annual growth rate of 56.2% between 2010-2018 (Figure 11). Thailand quickly captured the China import trade for two reasons. First, the country possesses a strong and dedicated economic development tradition of processed agricultural exports (Goss and Burch 2001). Thailand also got an early jump in the China-bound fruit export trade in 2003 when the zero-tariff Thailand-China Free Trade Agreement was signed; until 2019, Thailand was the only country granted permission to export whole fresh durian to China.
In response to this opportunity, smallholder Thai farmers switched from rubber and other fruit to durian production, especially in its eastern provinces, and more specifically in Chanthaburi province where 44 percent of total durian production in the country takes place, and one of three eastern provinces that account for 75 percent of China-bound durian exports (Figure 12) (Win 2017). A secondary, but still important production region is in the far southern provinces of Songkhla and Yala, from where durian originally diffused to the north. Anchored by dedicated national government technical support to increase production efficiency and adoption of good agricultural practices or GAP certification, there are hundreds of sorting and packing plants operated by middlemen (Figure 13).
Thai exports to China and globally are dominated by the mild tasting and aromatic Monthong variety which is picked one week short of fully ripening. Thais, compared to Malaysians or Indonesians, traditionally prefer slightly under-ripe fruit, and this allows exports to remain fresh for a longer period of time (Figure 14). Low transport cost is afforded by truck via recently completed regional highways as part of China’s “Belt and Road” initiative to extract resources from Mekong Basin countries. Most durian only make it to the supermarkets of China’s first and second tier cities, but the entry of e-commerce giant Alibaba, China’s equivalent of Amazon, into the distribution and sales network in 2018 has made the fruit available to those living in smaller urban places as well. So lucrative is the Thailand-China durian trade, that experienced Chinese fruit importing companies now have a physical presence in the country and have started to eliminate Thai middlemen by buying directly from farmers and investing in sorting and packaging plants (Tantrakonnsab and Tantrakoonsab 2018). One negative impact of this headlong rush to export durian are domestic consumption supply shortages. Thai per capita consumption, for example, has drastically declined from 13.2 lbs. in 2008 to 3.3 lbs. in 2016 as a result (DGMR, 2018).
Unlike Thailand’s assembly line durian production system for export, Malaysia’s durian economy has traditionally been domestically oriented; its greatest export market has been nearby Singapore. Although ranked second in export value, the country’s $29 million pales in comparison to Thailand, although its 2010-2018 average annual growth rate is almost equal (Figure 11). In fact, Malaysia must import fresh durian from southern Thailand to meet domestic demand especially when harvests are below expectation. Aside from high domestic demand, overlapping reasons explain a low export volume. The first and most basic is that Malaysian government agricultural policy has always privileged large-scale plantation commodities such as oil palm and rubber. Second, traditional durian harvest practice is to allow fruit to fall, often into nets, once ripened on the tree. This means that, unlike in Thailand, durians are mostly consumed within days of harvest, discouraging opportunities for long distance and time consuming international transport. Third, Malaysia only received approval to export whole fresh durian to China in 2018 and thus has relied on exporting processed durian in the form of paste, pulp, and puree for flavoring in food goods made in China since 2011. Nevertheless, to feed growing domestic demand as well as the more recent anticipated access to the China market, Malaysia’s planted area expanded from 24,824 acres and 17 percent of total fruit acreage in the early 1990s, to 163,089 acres and 47 per cent of total fruit acreage in 2017.
Instead, Malaysia’s durian economy has also more recently developed from the bottom-up, durian tourism particularly in the three traditional durian growing regions of Balik Pulau in Penang state, Raub and Bentong districts to the northeast of Kuala Lumpur in Pahang state, and the Segamat district in the northern part of Johor state. The first two are adjacent to large urban centers and the third is a primary destination for Singapore tourists. The vast majority of domestic and international tourists visit ubiquitous roadside durian stalls that open in the late afternoon (Figures 15)
While most tourists have their heart set on the premium branded fruit such as Musang King, Black Thorn or Red Prawn, there is often not enough volume and prices can be very high; Musang King, for example, depending on availability, can sell for between $ 4.50 to $15.00 per lb. and that includes the husk. By comparison, the top price for Monthong sold in Malaysia is only $4.00. Such high costs drive customers to settle for a wide variety of less popular and less expensive varieties (Figure 16).
More adventuresome tourists, both domestic and international, who desire a more ‘authentic’ and ‘local’ durian consumption experience visit orchards where fruit is often grown organically (Figure 17). Some orchard owners offer visitors at least a crash course in the taste and texture differences between varieties of durian available, which in itself is part of the refinement process. Taking notice of the rise of durian-based tourism, the federal Ministries of Tourism and Agriculture in 2019 officially introduced a “Durian Strategy’ to attract Asian tourists through durian packages that include both orchard visits and homestays. With some three million Chinese tourists in 2018, ‘durio-tourism’ has become an important development policy goal for rural regions.
In concert with agri-tourism goals, the allure of the China export market has Malaysian government officials drooling after an agreement was signed in 2018 to allow whole fresh Malaysian durians to be imported into China. In response, Malaysia's former Minister of Agriculture claimed that ‘we have found a new “gold” and it's called durian’ (Bowie 2018). This so-called new gold is primarily anchored in the Musang King variety and accounts for two-thirds of new plantings in the last decade. Described as the ‘Hermès’ of durians, Musang King in China can sell for four times the price, or $60 per lb., when compared to Malaysia. In the summer 2017, I saw a single Musang King durian at a Hong Kong fruit outlet selling for the status seeking price of $135. This whole fresh durian export economy is now made possible by a flash, nitrogen freezing technology and air freight cargo shipment via a cold chain container that keeps temperatures constant at a steady -4° F. (Figure 18). Such advanced technologies allows both taste and texture to remain relatively stable for many months in addition to locking in odor.
So promising is the fresh durian export market, that the Malay proverb durian runtuh, meaning unexpected good fortune, as in a durian falling from a tree, in part applies to small scale durian farmers because the traditionally low wholesale earnings from middlemen has dramatically increased. For those switching from small-scale oil palm to Musang King, per acre earnings can increase nine-fold. Aside from small-scale producers, durian acreage now include individual investors with no past experience growing durian as well as traditional plantation corporations. The latter seek to diversify their crops to protect against depressed palm oil prices and growing anti-oil palm campaigns in the West because of the negative environmental impacts linked to deforestation. These larger-scale producers with operations over 100 acres will apply technologically sophisticated irrigation and tree monitoring systems via QR (quick response) codes to increase cultivation efficiency.
The durian boom in both Thailand and Malaysia has been relatively recent, so judging the potential long term negative impacts on the environment is somewhat speculative. Nevertheless, one present problem relating to the export boom in both Thailand and Malaysia is the potential reduction in the fruit’s genetic diversity. In Thailand, for example, the export dominance of the single Monthong variety which in 2016 comprised 89 percent of cultivated area, has displaced other indigenous varieties, many deemed to be of higher quality (See video, Episode 2). In an optimistic view, however, the deputy director of the Bio Thai Foundation claims that “people often wonder where all the native mangoes or durians have gone. The market took them away, and the market can bring them back, with all their different flavors and characteristics.” (Thomya and Taotagoo 2019). In Malaysia, some worry similarly about the rise of the Musang King. Nevertheless there are orchard owners that revere these many lesser known ‘heirloom’ varieties and will continue to cultivate them as ‘custodians’ of genetic diversity (Airriess 2020)
Directly related to the reduction of lesser known varieties available to consumers are ecological problems associated with industrial scale monocrop production. Durian trees are not easy to successfully cultivate as they are highly susceptible to insect and fungi-based diseases especially among hybrids like Musang King and Monthong when compared to native varieties planted from seed. In Malaysia, the most basic government planting guides stress the importance of at least three varieties planted in larger orchards to reduce the risk of disease. In larger monocrop orchards then, substantial amounts of insecticides and fungicides must be applied, but this practice in turn reduces the life span of the tree.
While not a potential problem in Thailand as most durians replaced other fruit in pre-existing orchards, there has emerged an environmental controversy concerning the durian boom in Malaysia. The demand and financial reward for Musang King is so great that instances of deforestation have taken place in a country that is already experienced substantial oil palm-related deforestation. In more than a few cases, secondary forest has been levelled to make way for larger scale durian plantations; one was in the Gua Musang district in the northern state of Kelantan, the original home of Musang King, that involved infringement on aboriginal or Orang Asli lands. In the Raub district, Malaysia’s hotbed of durian production, the state government has changed the status of forest reserves to make way for industrial scale durian plantations which negatively impacts a wide variety of endangered animal species, especially the critically endangered Malayan Tiger. In the larger environmental degradation picture, durian production is heavily reliant on pollinating fruit bats and the levelling of forest, whether primary of secondary, robs the bats of its habitat (Aziz and others 2017). The director of a Malaysian environmental NGO perfectly captures this ecological relationship when she claims that “[c]ompanies that engage in this practice are prematurely destroying the vey future profits that they hope to derive from their durian business in the first place (Chu 2018).
Traditionally characterized by both local scale production and consumption, durian in Asia has today become not only an internationally traded commodity, but a fetishized commodity. Its status as a ‘cultural object’ in Malaysia is in part explained by rural nostalgia and the development of hybrid diversity while in China it is a class driven desire for exotic foods and social status. With reference to international trade, Thailand has developed an almost monopoly in the assembly line-like supply of the single and mild tasting Monthong variety to the world and especially China. Malaysia’s durian economy, however, has traditionally been anchored in domestic and international durian-based tourism and exporting low volumes of processed durian. This will change with the ability since 2019 to export high quality whole fresh Musang King to China.
Both Thailand and Malaysia are new competitors for the China market and have lessons to learn from each other. Thai marketing officials already realize that fruit quality must be raised so as not to lose market share, in addition to developing a more robust durian-centered tourism economy; the former can be enhanced by commercializing richer tasting varieties. For Thailand, attracting tourists to orchards is more difficult because unlike in Malaysia where orchards are adjacent to urban centers, Thai production regions are located far from urban tourist centers such as Bangkok. In Malaysia, the durian economy will become bifurcated into orchard visits by both domestic and foreign tourists seeking the many varieties available, and an export market fueled by larger scale, plantation-like Musang King production. Smaller scale production catering to the tourist market might in fact be a fait accompli as the bureaucratic and time consuming protocol requirements to export fruit to China are perceived to be too burdensome. For larger scale export producers it is critically important, and Malaysia’s environmental groups have already sounded the alarm, that new tracts of durian plantations be restricted to less productive oil palm lands so as not to exacerbate deforestation.