How The Musang King Came To Be The Top Cultivar Of Durians

The musang king durian is widely acknowledged today as the best durian money can buy. There are some other durians that have sold for higher prices, but the consensus is that they are still not worth the money as musang king is still more delicious.

You only need to take a bite into it to understand why.

It’s legendary origins is often said to trace back to the 1980s when a Chinese farmer in Malaysia came across an odd looking durian tree while trekking around the forest in Tanah Merah, Kelantan.

The original name was actually Kunyit in Malay, which translates to tumeric. It later morphed into Raja Kunyit which means tumeric king.

Floored by it’s amazing flavour, flesh texture and aroma of this newly discovered cultivar, he pruned some branches off the tree and brought them back to his hometown in Pahang to graft and cultivate them himself.

It was from the plantation fields of Raub, where the name we know of today was conceptualized.

From the very first harvest, news of this new breed of durian fruits spread like wildfire.

The Chinese name of Musang king is mao shan wang (猫山王) which literally translates to the king of the cat mountain.

This is because the forest that this genre of durians was found was in the area called Gua Musang. While musang is a Malay term for the Asian palm civet, the Chinese affectionately called the area mao shan (cat mountain) as it phonetically sounds similar.

Mao shan wang (MSW) durians are known as Raja Kunyit in Malay.

There’s also a folklore about the durian flesh resembling the form of a sleeping cat. Thus the name cat mountain.

As the reputation of this new durian cultivar grew exponentially, it was then bestowed the title of The Musang King.

It also carries the alias D197 which is a reference to the registration number of this specific fruit in the Malaysia list of national crops when the variety was first registered in 1993.

This can be seen as the official answer to the origins of musang kings as the registrant of D197 is said to be a descendant of the farmer who first planted the mother tree in the 1800s. The fame of the variant only gained traction with the development of infrastructure like cross-country highways across Malaysia.

It also helped that the casino magnate Stanley Ho made headlines by sending his private jet on a trip just to fetch 88 of these durians for him. He actually wanted more but 88 was all that was left!

In recent years, it has earned the title as the Hermes of durians. A phrase that has caught on with consumers.

Take note that when we see MSW separately labelled as Raja Kunyit and musang king at durian stalls, the former would refer to fruits that were cultivated in Kelantan and the latter from anywhere else.

The name of this particular cultivar is so recognizable that food companies have ridden the wave by using the musang king moniker for food products such as mooncakes, puff pastry, ice-cream, etc.

However, a satirical joke that never grows old in the durian community is that you’d know a person is a rookie when he or she only asks about MSW.

It’s not that this cultivar is low quality. But there’s a huge spectrum of cultivars in this world, and MSW is now the dominant mass market one from Malaysia. It’s like only talking about McDonald’s in the world of fast food.

Features of Musang King durians

To experts and durian sellers, different types of durians have very easy-to-observe differences that are easily identifiable.

Many consumers might find identifying different genres of durians an incredibly specialized skill. But it’s just like something you would learn with more experience and selling them.

How do you identify musang king?

We mainly identify this variant by looking at the external husk or from the consumption of the durian itself.

From the round-to-oval exterior, there are 5 main physical identifiable characteristics of mao shan wang durians.

  1. Light green shade of husk
  2. Spikes shaped like pyramids with a wide base and blunt tip (blunt by durian standards)
  3. Star-shaped brown patch at the bottom of the fruit that indicates the seams
  4. Mostly bald at the bottom of the husk
  5. Relatively long stem at the top of the fruit and a bald ring around where the stem meets the thorns

In recent times, some of the trademark physical characteristics have started to change or become less observable. This can be attributed to the thousands of clone trees that have been grafted on tree stumps. It’s not unusual, and perhaps understandable, that we are seeing these changes.

Different farmers with different environments, climate, caring practices, etc, can also be a catalyst for growing different physical characteristics.

There’s no shame in being unable to tell the difference from looking at unopened durians.

But one deserves to be spanked if he or she is unable to appreciate the superior quality of musang kings when eating it.

The durian pulp, or fruitlet, which consist of the flesh with seed, itself has a mostly eye-catching bright yellow appearance, bordering on gold.

Those that are more bitter than bittersweet would have a hue of blue-black inside the flesh which can be observed through the thin skin. Experts refer to it looking like a bruise suffered when you knock into something hard.

It’s flesh is abundantly thick and creamy.

There’s so much fruit meat in there that it can fully fill your whole mouth if you allow it to.

This is made possible due to a most unique physical attribute of the musang king. The small and often flat seed hidden in the pulp.

Another mystifying characteristic of this durian is that the whole lobe of fruitlets contained in chamber pods tend to have 1 seed that is exposed, seemingly breaking or popping through the custard flesh. The community term for this unusual feature is “laughing”.

If there is ever any doubt that you are in the presence of the musang king’s greatness, then finding a flat seed after stuffing your mouth with the delicious flesh would validate it’s authenticity.

With that said, a large seed does not mean that it’s not a musang king. It just means that it is a clone from a grafted tree. Or maybe even a clone of a clone… of a clone.

And as most people would intuitively know, clones don’t always take on the same features as the original. Which is one big reason why genuine fruits from authentic old trees are highly valued.

In all honesty, you should be able to savour the rich taste of premium quality easily when devouring musang king.

This is no matter whether you love the sweet or bitter variant.

When I reminiscent the time before I had my first mao shan wang, I had a vague idea what a heavenly durian would taste and feel like. I received the answer when I had MSW. And I’d think that a lot of people would feel the same way.

It just takes your breath away.

They can even be graded for quality as well. However, most consumers see the grading system as an unscrupulous way to sell the fruit for more than it’s worth.

A thin husk and bald bottom also means that this durian can easily crack open when fallen from the tree and onto the ground below. A cracked durian cannot be graded as triple A no matter which tree it fell from. So be mindful of this when dealing with sellers.

Black gold (黑金) for example, is said to be a premium variant of musang king selling at exuberant prices. While this premium quality can be observable to expert durianers, most average consumers would not be able to tell or appreciate the difference. So the basic mao shan wangs should be enough to overwhelm the senses.

Wang zhong wang (王中王) is another supposed variant marketed as a premium of MSW.

Unethical sellers can also often misrepresent the quality of their stock by vaguely labeling them as old tree durians. Do realise that the term old tree is subjective. A 3 year old tree can be considered old by anyone with an opinion. But durian connoisseurs would know that a tree has to be at least 25 years to be considered old in the world of durians. And for fussy old-timers, only 40+ year trees can be categorized as old.

Because durian tourists are often preyed upon by sellers as they lack the thorny wisdom possessed by the locals, you should acquaint yourself with some basic durian identification knowledge to avoid being someone taken for a ride by sellers.

There’s no harm physically checking and inspecting your fruit before making a purchase.

You don’t want to be going “ooooooooh ahhhhhhh” on a $2 durian thinking that it’s worth $50. The sellers would be joking about you among themselves when the stall closes.

So if you are ever bringing gifts for the host during a visit and have decided on durians (which is very common in Asia), buying Musang King would tell the receivers how important you value them… and that you are not a miser.

Musing king harvest season

There are various Malaysia states that grow and farm mao shan wang (MSW). But Pahang is generally considered as the capital for MSW.

This is partly due to the origins story mentioned previously.

Because of how the monsoon season from the Southwest and Northeast affects the harvesting periods in different states such as Penang in the west and Pahang in the east, MSW can be available throughout the year.

But the peak seasons are typically in the middle of the year between June and August.

Peak seasons can mean more competitive durian prices for consumers as producers, wholesalers and retailers rush to clear their inventory within the “fresh” window.

This was evident as recent as in 2018 when Musang King prices hit a record low ranging in a price per kg between $12-$15 due to a sudden glut of supply caused by extraordinary climate conditions in the region.

The usual price for MSW borders around $25/kg for the whole fruit. With fruits from old aged trees (老树) going as high as around $35/kg. The talk is that it will easily go above $55/kg in the coming years leading up to 2030.

With the average sized MSW weighing about 1.6kg to 2.4kg, it means one whole fruit can cost as much as $70+.

My experience tells me that those just above 2kg tend to be better quality.

In recent years, the prices for the rare black thorn cultivar has occasionally surpassed MSW.

Freezing technology in the food & beverage industry also means that frozen durians can be available even in very low seasons. A rising trend is to blast freeze whole durians with liquid nitrogen.

Just remember that frozen durians are never good substitutes for the real durian experience with fresh ones. The same can be said of durians packed in a box.

Anyone trying to tell you that frozen durians are just as good, or even better than fresh fruits, is probably trying to sell you their frozen inventory.

If you’ve already decided on paying premium price for premium quality as in the case of MSW, there’s no reason to settle for substitutes.