• July 29, 2014

Postcards From Borneo: The World’s Stinkiest (but Best) Fruit

Russell Laman

Crash! The huge male orangutan swings over into another tree, searching for fruit. He climbs higher, overlooking the canopy searching for another meal. Every day while following orangutans I notice how many different fruit trees they go to, usually around 15 or so. They crash and clamber through the forest like hungry, hairy acrobats searching for the most nutritious meals. One of the orangutan’s favorites is a fruit called durian.

Picture of a split-open durian fruit
The interior of a wild durian, split open with the sections of creamy flesh visible.

I am basically crazy about durian, maybe even more than the orangutans. Most people probably don’t even know what it is, especially if they don’t live in Southeast Asia. Durian is a pineapple-sized yellow or green fruit that is covered in sharp spines. It grows on large trees and is cultivated by the local people in Borneo. The fruit has concealed sections that contain their seeds covered in edible flesh. To open a durian, I have to carefully search for the place where the sections meet. Then I insert a large knife and twist, popping it open. The orangutans however pry them open with their teeth and bare hands, seemingly with ease. The pulp that covers the seeds is unlike any other fruit. It is creamy yellow or white. It tastes a little like butter with a hint of banana creaminess, but each fruit tastes different and it is virtually impossible to describe in words. To really understand the taste and why I love them, you have to try them yourself.

Picture of Russell Laman with an orangutan researcher examining cultivated durians at a fruit stand
Russell Laman and orangutan researcher Wahyu Susanto examine cultivated durians at a stand in Sukadana village on the way to Gunung Palung.

Each year that I visit Indonesia with my family, my first question is always, “Is the durian in season?” It is sold all over the small towns in Indonesia. Probably the most popular fruit, it dominates the market. As I drive down the streets I am immediately aware when durians are near. The odor that they release will clog your nose and overpower your sense of smell. Yet for me the smell holds the promise of durian, and so I have come to love a smell that many find so repulsive that the fruit is banned in hotels and on planes. When I visit a durian stand I am very into picking the best fruit. Each one is extremely different and unique, one of the aspects I have fallen in love with. I sniff and smell the durian, constantly turning it over and making sure there are no worm-holes. Then we crack them open and eat, discussing how this one compares to the last and the one prior to that.

Picture of Russell Laman sitting at a table full of opened durians in the research camp
Russell Laman sits at a table in the research camp after an evening feast of wild durian.

Before this summer I had only tried the domesticated variety sold in the villages, but once I arrived at my Mom’s research camp in Borneo, I heard that the forest durian were ripe and falling. This meant a “mast fruiting,” an occasion that happens only about every four-five years when tons of trees fruit at the same time. This is an effective strategy for certain species of trees that are popular with animals because during masts there is way more yield than the animals can consume, making certain the possibility of the seeds sprouting. Often while following orangutans they lead us to durian trees and after they move on we mark where the trees are located. Every day we bring back another load of durian from the rainforest. The wild variety is different from the kind in the towns, they are smaller and green and only have one piece of fruit, if any, in each of their sections. But they make up for their size with taste. The orangutans got lucky, their durian are even better than the domesticated kind. They are creamier and have a more rich and vivid taste than those in the town. This leads us to continuously collect them and glorifies my love of the forest.

Picture of an orangutan sitting in a tree, feeding on durians
An orangutan feeds in a wild durian tree in Gunung Palung, holding several fruits of this small variety in his hand.

As you follow orangutans there are always moments where they are in the top of a gigantic tree eating and you have no view of them. One such time I was sitting on the forest floor waiting for the orangutan to leave a tree. Then plop! A forest durian landed not a foot from my head. I immediately moved as I realized I was right under the orangutan. Every day in the forest we have more adventures with orangutans. I have come to realize and notice the similarities between them and us. When you look into their eyes you see a deeper level of comprehension than in a monkey. They seem to have distinct personalities and are amazingly intelligent. This similarity between humans and orangutans makes me love being near them. It’s intriguing to watch and learn about these animals. They even lead you to durian trees. You just have to make sure you don’t get hit in the head.

Over the past weeks, Proof has been following the adventures of Tim, Cheryl, Jessica, and Russell in the rain forests of Borneo. Tim’s story on orangutan behavior will be featured in an upcoming issue of National Geographic. Cheryl is a 2004 Emerging Explorer and has received grants from the National Geographic Society for her work with orangutans.

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There are 16 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Dan S
    April 3, 2015

    I would like to make a trip to Borneo this year for the fruit peak and am mainly looking for the native species that are not commercially sold (such as Durio species that are only wild or in small villiages). I need help finding them though, let me know if you can help me find them.

  2. Rahmat Marley
    November 17, 2014

    Brilliant Article, Future Great Writer!

  3. Ainsley
    September 28, 2014

    i wonder what a durian would taste like…

  4. Suzanne Powers
    August 20, 2014

    What great adventures you and your sister are having! A gourmet and scientist in the making? Thank you for sharing your insight on the animals and local food. Well done! I look forward to the next “installment.”

  5. Wita
    August 15, 2014

    wow, i’m glad you like it Russel. It’s our favorite fruit here in Indonesia. People crazy about it. They got together with family or friend and eat dozen Durians. LOL

  6. Kay keaty
    August 13, 2014

    I have really enjoyed reading about your adventures; your writing is superb. Hope to see you while you are in SD. Miranda and Julia say hello…

  7. Aaron Loo
    August 9, 2014

    Very interesting and informative. A big thank you.Btw can Natgeo compile variations of durians around the world. So limit our knowledge on the King of fruits.

  8. Deb Dey
    August 7, 2014

    I hail from Shillong,India. I have tasted this fruit and it is called Kotush in local language. Besically there are two types of them. One is very small size of a pea and has a hard skin and we need to break that coating and have that inner seed which tastes like some raw almond and other one is the one is this which is named here as Durian but it is not sold in the local market there as not many trees there to be able to sell it to mass.Those who know they about these pluck it and have it.

  9. Joyce Knott
    August 6, 2014

    Wonderful article, Russell. I know how much you love durian! I’m so proud of you!

  10. Esther
    August 6, 2014

    I enjoyed reading this article, I too have ate durian. My employer gave me some to taste a few times; a very interesting fruit.

  11. Nyayu Fatimah Zahroh
    August 5, 2014

    Ahh,, i love (very much) this fruit. The smell also very nice.

  12. Tad Malone
    August 1, 2014

    Beautiful, informative photos.Living in Northern Thailand we are no strangers to durian. It’s the ice cream of fruits – unbeatable in taste (and smell)!

  13. Yati Nurdin
    July 30, 2014

    what a great post! I love durian too, and i wish i could taste some of the wild ones.

  14. Marco
    July 29, 2014

    Congratulation Russell! I understand you are only 14, but you wrote a great and very interesting article! Well done.

  15. Khai C. Ang
    July 29, 2014

    I am very glad that you enjoy durian, and having Orang Utan to show you, you get the best!

    And I love the adventure that you are having!

  16. Isabel HernánezTibau
    July 29, 2014

    Sigo a esta hermosa familia con la mamá al frente con la investigación sobre orangutanes (interesantísima) y a su reportero tan especial, dándonos la oportunidad de compartir una aventura super emocionante y educativa!!! Gracias!!

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