My exploration of Singapore’s Durian culture has brought me to this season’s finale with the discovery of Singapore’s very own Pulau Ubin durians and possibly Singapore’s oldest Durian seller!
The fact that there are Pulau Ubin Durians might be of a surprise to you, but for Durian devotees and especially the one’s who have lived through Singapore’s Golden Age of Durians, Pulau Ubin Durians are a time portal to an era where the coming of the Durian season was as eagerly anticipated as the Malaysian Cup Finals.
Those were the days when the King of fruits would make a short appearance of but once or perhaps just twice in a year, to tease the devotees with its pungent yet alluring aroma for a fleeting moment. Nowadays, advances in agriculture have meant that the Durian season could be lengthened considerably and we may have two or even three seasons in a year. Because of this, the modern devotees are not nearly as fervently in awe of the fruit as devotees of yesteryear.
In those good old days when families were so big that the government had to say “Two is enough!” and Durians were less fleshy as their modern day descendents, the thorny fruit used to be consumed by the basketful rather than the bagful. The whole extended family and perhaps the neighbours would all gather around a basket of Durians to play jackpot and see who can unveil the fleshiest Durians with the smallest vestigial seeds. It was a time when Durians didn’t go by fancy pansy names or D cup sizes… I mean numbers. They were all simply called Durians.
Nowadays these miscellaneous, mongrel Durians are simply called “Kampung” Durians to denote the fact that they are grown in the wild and lack pedigree. But that does not mean they are bad. On the contrary, the devotees of the Ubin Durian swear by them and eagerly await their appearance each June with much fervour.
I was told that Durians litter the forests of Pulau Ubin during the season, free for anyone who would bother to wake up early in the morning to pick them up. These are, in a sense, truly organic Durians since no one really looks after them and most of them come from very old trees. I was told that there are one or two private plantations with a couple of good trees left on the island. These produce highly coveted fruits with distinct character which make them feel like vintage cars alongside the mass produced Mercedes of Mao Shan Wangs.
But where do the devotees make their annual pilgrimage? The more radical ones might take the bum boat ride across to Pulau Ubin to keep overnight vigil under the Durian tree, paying homage to the fruit when it makes its earthly descent. The less pious would wait for news from “Ah Di” (阿弟 – Little brother) that the sedan chair carrying the King of fruits has at last arrived at Fringe Car Park Lot 51/53 off Dempsey Road and is theirs to partake of for a relatively meager offering of $13/kg.
The 85 year old “Ah Di”, tells me that he is one of the last of the Durian old guards who still has access to the prized Ubin durians. Having been in the business since the 1950’s, he is one of the oldest surviving Durian sellers in Singapore who are still actively working during the season.
“There used to be quite a few Durian stalls in this carpark in the old days, but I am the only one left!” he tells me rather dryly. “The rest have all died!”
I told Uncle that I was here to experience the best and the most unforgettable Pulau Ubin Durian, to which he enquired, “You like sweet or bitter”?
Seems like that was the same question that is asked all their regulars here, most of whom started arriving at around 4pm for their daily dose. In fact, most of them don’t really ask for Durains by name. They do have Mao Shan Wang and Butter Durians here, but a lot of the other Durians fall into the category of “Kampung Durians”, which basically means that they are likely to have pale yellow grey flesh and can either be sweet or bitter. Most of the customers here simply park their BMWs beside the stall, walk over and let “Ah Di” choose the Durian that most suits their palate.
Uncle handed me a fruit which he says is a bitter Pulau Ubin durian. It certainly did not look like any of the Durians which I have come across so far this season. After I took a shot of it, he opened it to reveal its voluptuous, pale yellow flesh which had a wonderful bitter sweet taste and a flavour which, I must admit, reminded me of the Durians I used to eat as a kid!It might not be as creamy as a Mao Shan Wang or as bitter as an XO, but it is one Durian which I can say is truly, uniquely Singapore.
So far, this is the only place I know of that sells Durians from Pulau Ubin. Even though, the distance might be short compared to Durians coming from Pahang, the small volume meant that transportation costs are actually higher. The Durians here are certainly not the cheapest around, but they do have a steady stream of customers who attest to the quality of the Durians and most of them tell me that one of the biggest attraction is that they can easily drive into the empty parking lot, park, have their dose of Durian and drive off again which make it a very convenient place to have your Durian fix!
Update: 6 Nov 2012
The stall has relocated to the carpark near Blk 7 Dempsey Hill.
Do you remember how you ate Durians as a kid? Share it with the rest of Singapore by jotting it down at www.singaporememory.sg or on tweet it with the hashtag #sgmemory. You can also download the SG Memory iphone app and record your memories on your phone!