Forbidden Fruit

January 18, 2007

Durian: D24, Teka, RajaI had heard of a fruit called durian from Soyan’s mother. It was always spoken of in wistful tones, her voice dripping with desire. Soyan, on the other hand, stressed how awful it smelled. I had never smelled durian, but I had been warned that it smelled “bad”. “Bad,” I thought, how bad can it be? I had been warned that it smelled “like rotting meat” or a “rubbish dump”. I had also been assured by its fans that whatever the momentary unpleasantness of the smell, it was well worth it for this little taste of heaven on earth. Despite the fruit’s popularity in Southeast Asia and in particular Malaysia, it is banned in most hotels. It is illegal to consume on public transit. It truly is… the forbidden fruit!

George picking RambutanWith this background I was delighted to be invited by George, another kind and generous “a.S.i.D” forum member, to join some of the forum for a fruit safari at his durian orchid an hour outside Kuala Lampur. George informed me that I had not really been to Malaysia until I had eaten durian. I am not a “fear factor” type, but I am not a picky eater either, so I was excited about trying it. I looked forward to joining the legion of durian fans, if for no other reason than the pleasure of enjoying forbidden fruit.

Chin Tong, one more of the “a.S.i.D” group that has been so welcoming, picked us up at the hotel and we began talking durian. He loves durian, and was anxious for us to try it. He made a convincing case that he wanted us to try it because he liked it so much. He assured me that, while it has a distinctive odor, if you enjoy blue cheese, you’ll be fine. That seemed promising, but the confidence was short lived. I asked his two children and their two friends if they liked durian and learned there was not a single fan among them.

Chin Tong carves a DurianAt the farm we took a wonderful walk and saw the astounding variety of plants and trees from all over the world that George has collected. We played in his waterfall and tasted his delicious rambutan, another local fruit. Finally it was time for the main event. In a crate next to the table were a dozen durians of the three best varieties. There were D24, widely considered the best commercial variety, Raja, popular for its deep yellow color, and Teka, George’s personal favorite. Only the D24 is commonly found since the other two strains have lower yields, making them less profitable to grow commercially.

With great reverence Chin Tong began to butcher the fruit, and the previously slight odor grew strong. While I didn’t really like the smell, it wasn’t as bad as I had feared. That seemed promising, after all I had been told that eating durian was like sampling the ripest of strawberries or a delicious cream custard… while sitting in a latrine. It was time for my first taste.

The texture was very smooth and creamy, very much like a soft brie and with a similar color. The flavor was most similar to eating a whole roasted clove of garlic, with some onion flavor and a hint of, well, let’s call it fecal matter. Soyan captured me on video, hating it, but trying hard to maintain positive or at least neutral perspective, but it was really terrible. I forced myself to try two more varieties that were sufficiently similar to the first to assure me that while I had tasted forbidden fruit, I would never enjoy it.

George explained that around 90% of people he brought to the farm that had not previously been exposed to durian, didn’t like it. Perhaps that is why there was so much enthusiasm to share durian - if we like it that’s fine, but the real fun is in the “here, taste this, your going to hate it!”

Visiting the orchard was great, and seeing how rural Malaysia is just outside the city was a nice contrast to the many malls of KL. I am even glad I tried the durian. Thank goodness, I never have to do it again.

Thanks again to all my new a.S.i.D. friends in Malaysia!

To travel, you need an Atlas (moth)

December 30, 2006

Atlas Moth A spectacular Atlas moth just coming out of its cocoon. We went to a farm an hour outside Kuala Lampur today, where we saw this moth. An Atlas moth seemed an apt symbol of our atlas exploring trip. This moth will live for about two weeks from the fat deposits built up during its time as a caterpillar and die almost the same time we return home. More details on the trip to the farm tomorrow.

Welcome to Malaysia

December 27, 2006

Still in the present and thus out of sequence…

Since the Taiwan earthquake has disrupted telecommunications throughout Asia, I wrote half of this on my Blackberry, which seems to not to have been affected. Internet connections are working slowly and intermittently but I managed to finish the post on my laptop. I could not however upload the photo to flickr. I eventually managed to get the photo uploaded to this site, but the net is still very flaky.

I met my friend, Boon, from Malaysia at Birthing of Giants, a three year long entrepreneurial education program run by MIT, Inc. Magazine and the Entrepreneurs Organization (formerly YEO). I had been hoping to visit him in Kuala Lampur for some time, and now I am finally here. The only problem is that Boon is in Australia! The good news is that we will overlap one night for dinner, but in the meantime, he was nice enough to introduce me electronically to his forum named “a.S.i.D”.

For non-EO readers, a forum is a group of peers that EO members meet monthly to discuss whatever issues are important to the members. Forum groups often become quite tight over the years and a.S.i.D. has been together for almost a decade! Any friend of Boon’s, it seemed, was a friend of the forum’s. Several a.S.i.D. members were kind enough to contact me before my arrival with a variety of invitations.

One of them, James, wrote me last night and told me he was leaving town, but that he was free tonight and tomorrow night. He asked where I was staying and when I was arriving. I sent him the information and agreed to call him when I got in. I understood this to mean that I’d call him when I got to my hotel about 8:30 that night. He understood it a little differently.

I never got a chance to call him because he was standing in my hotel lobby and greeting us warmly before I had a chance to make it to the check-in counter. He had Rosemary, another Forum member, and her husband Stephen in tow. The five of us went out for Chinese food and then for coffee and dessert. They were warm, gracious and fun! It was a fantastic, if somewhat unexpected, welcome to Kuala Lampur. Of course given the ubiquitous English and the modern air conditioned mall with Prada and Cartier we could just as easily been in Los Angeles.

James had devoured both my blog and Soyan’s and was full of birthdays wishes for Soyan and questions about our trip. He also shared some of his travels in pursuit of his goal to visit 200 countries before he dies. While he is only a little over 25% of the way, I don’t doubt he’ll make it. He seems to have an incredible knack for organizing adventures. It took me years to get my Forum to go to Las Vegas. “a.S.i.D.” has gone to Angkor Wat, Hanoi and the Taj Majal to name just a few spots. Along the way they have the orchestrated impossible dinners in places like Hanoi’s Temple of Literature and an Angkor Temple.

James was kind enough indulge me in my favorite pastime of learning about other people’s businesses and told me a little bit about his hospitality furniture business. Rosemary gave me some insight in to the Kuala Lampur real estate market and her multigeneration-family friendly town houses. Her husband Stephen runs a Malaysian ISP and brought me up to speed about the local market for technology products and workers. I had never given much thought to living in Malaysia, but now it seems so easy. I’ll get a condo from Rosemary and Internet access from Stephen. James and I have already started discussing ideas about selling his furniture online. Not bad for 12 hours in the country.