James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

The Sweet Relief of Finding One New Thing Under the Sun

The Sweet Relief of Finding One New Thing Under the Sun

Stir-fried Durian in Saratok

Saratok is a river town, like most populated places in Malaysian Borneo. I can see the pearly shimmer of river mist curl around the cement structures of the morning market and the Chinese temple next door through the dirty windows of my generally sooty hotel room. It’s time to get up.

A funny fact about doing anything long-term is that at some point the exotic becomes normal. I’ve been to so many morning markets, I’ve seen it all before; or at least, in this comfortable moment in bed I feel like I have. The thought of colorfully garbed women seated on mismatched tarps spread with spiraling jungle ferns, bright edible flowers, spiny alien fruits, and unnamable animal parts barely inspires me to roll over.

One more morning market, I think, as I push myself up and flip-flop into the dew.

The women sit in a covered walkway along the brown mud-banks. A small blue boat zips past, disturbing a white egret from its perch in the mangroves. I glance out at the river, bored and sleepy, and pass through the gauntlet of fruit sellers. I see bright yellow Iban eggplants, the orange oval betel nuts, spiny green soursop fruits, and hairy red rambutans. Normal, normal, normal.

Then I spot turquoise baskets filled with chunks of something orange and waxy.

“What’s that?” I ask the young woman in a bunny t-shirt. She giggles nervously.

“Durian.”

Durian is a thorny fruit famous throughout Asia for its fatty, creamy texture and overpowering odor, but in Sarawak they have many kinds of durian. There are miniscule red-fleshed durians and cream-cheesy orange durians, durians that have no odor at all and durians that fill a room with an aroma almost like paint thinner. Collectively, they are called durian hutan, jungle durians, and I’ve already seen them all. But I’ve never seen them chopped into hard pieces that look like bits of pumpkin or sweet potato.

A man sees me looking and picks up a basket. “Come,” he says. “Today you must try something new.”

He leads me a few steps to a food court filled with the aroma of fried noodles and milky coffee and hands the basket to one of the cooks, who tosses the contents into a wok with a hearty handful of chilies and garlic.

While the durian sizzles in oil and salty broth, the man explains that it is picked unripe when the flesh is starchy and hard like a vegetable.

“It is a special thing of Saratok,” he says, handing me the steaming plate. “We like it with coffee.”

I take a bite. The durian flesh has turned smooth and rich as a patty of butter, which goes nicely with the slight crunch of bean sprouts. It’s salty and spicy and fruity, and entirely odd. I’ve never tasted anything like it.

“I have to go to work now,” the man says, patting my arm. “I hope you have a nice visit to my city.”

I already have.

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