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 traced back to Pulau Raya where the elder Mr Chung planted the seed in 1790. After embracing the status of a nameless kampung durian for years, it adopted the original name Kunyit, which in Malay translates to tumeric. It later morphed into Raja Kunyit which means tumeric king.
The mother tree lived for almost 200 years before succumbing to nature in 1974. We are fortunate that there were other trees that were grafted with kunyit by then.
In the 1970s, a Chinese farmer Mr Wee came across an odd looking durian tree while trekking around the forest in Kelantan. He was star-struck by the delightful taste of it’s fruits and collected grafting material to plant his own saplings in Tanah Merah.
In the 1980s, a farmer Mr Chan came across kunyit in a hilly area of Kelantan. Floored by the fruit’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 (MSK) 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.
Then there’s the supposed fairy tale about how the civet cat only chose to eat kunyit among so many durians. And would puke while cursing some obscene vulgarities (e.g nbcb) the moment it eats an inferior cultivar such as D13. I believe the story was written by Enid Blyton.
As the reputation of this new durian cultivar grew exponentially aided by Pahang’s incredible supply capacity, 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 by Mr Wee.
This can be seen as the official answer to the origins of musang kings as the registrant of D197 is said to be related to the farmer who first planted the mother tree in the 18th century. The fame of the variant only gained traction with the development of infrastructure like cross-country highways across Malaysia.
Different circles can differ in thinking who played the most critical role in the journey to superstardom of MSW. In my opinion, they all played an important role in one big picture. Chung for planting the first seed and his descendants caring for the tree for more than a century, Wee for expertly replicating the tree, and Chan for supercharging the chain of events that brought it to the mass market. However, it should be noted that it was Wee who stabilized the cultivar with consistency and eventually got it registered with MARDI. It was such a tedious task that it was rumoured that it took about 20 years from his first initial application to final approval.
When you hear people say that the oldest musang king tree is in Pahang, it’s not the whole truth and is really just a play of words. The name MSK was conceptualized in Pahang. So I guess technically, the oldest MSK tree can be said to be there. But kunyit was already in Kelantan way before it was redressed as MSK in Pahang.
Any claims that there’s a 100 year old MSW tree in Pahang is definitely untrue.
The buzz around this cultivar was also helped by the casino magnate Stanley Ho who 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. And when a durian is labelled as just kunyit, it does not necessarily refer to raja kunyit and might be kunyit from Jawi even though they taste very similar.
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 talks or asks about MSK.
It’s not that this cultivar is low quality. But there’s a huge spectrum of cultivars in this world, and there are many other cultivars that are just as good, if not better than musang king. They are just not as easily available to the masses compared to MSK.
MSK is now undoubtedly the dominant mass market one from Malaysia. Only discussing MSK is 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 especially by selling them.
How do you identify musang king?
With how broadly available this durian has become in Singapore and Malaysia, knowing how to recognize it should be a skill that is not left to chance.
If you buy durians one day, or already buying them regularly, the odds are that you would be buying MSW or sellers would be selling you MSW one way or another. Surely you’d at least want to know that you are being sold what it is meant to be.
We mainly identify this variant by looking at the external husk features 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.
- Light green shade of husk
- Spikes shaped like pyramids with a wide base and blunt tip (blunt by durian standards)
- Convex top that is necked or acute before the stem
- Relatively long stem at the top of the fruit and a bald ring around where the stem meets the thorns
- Star-shaped brown bald patch at the bottom of the fruit with the rays indicating the seams
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.
Take note that even though flat seed MSWs don’t necessarily come from first degree clones, first degree clones will always have flat seeds.
With that said, a large seed does not necessarily mean that it’s not a musang king. Yes it can be a fake. But it can also just mean that it is from a young tree or 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.
This also means that if you bought what was supposedly marketed as premium AAA grade highland oldtree wang zhong wang black gold king max plus pro ultra, and you find a big seed within, there’s a good chance that your gullible nature has been taken advantage of. 😀
In all honesty, you should nevertheless 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.
Even after having countless MSWs over the years, I sometimes still find myself going “wah” when I have it.
They are many great tasting cultivars that most people will have never heard of before because they are not commercially viable to mass produce and distribute . We are so lucky that MSW, which is arguably the most delicious cultivar, has all the economic and cultivation characteristics to be commercially viable. Making it easily available everywhere. It’s like the stars are perfectly aligned for this one.
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. It also does have a tendency to split open from the bottom naturally 1 or 2 days after the harvest. Which is why we commonly see rubber bands holding the bottom together preventing it from opening.
A split or 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 borderline 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.
And to be honest, regular MSW can often taste better than the “premiums”. And “premiums” can taste inferior to “regulars” just as often. But of course, taste is subjective to individual preferences.
Maybe a cause of the confusion is simply due to the ongoing endemic of duriamentia plaguing the industry. One symptom being a “pure misunderstanding” of a “normal” MSW placed in the black gold area to sell at 20% higher price… when they are all come from the same trees from the same farms!
I’ve actually witnessed durian sellers shaming and reprimanding customers for failing to recognize their “premium black gold” MSW when questioned. Be aware that people often get aggressively defensive when found out. If a “premium” MSW variant for example, has large seeds, you can hardly even call it a regular MSW. How can a premium MSW lack one of the most desirable and satisfying features of a regular MSW with small seeds? Isn’t “premium” suppose to be an improvement of desirable features instead of a deterioration? How can anyone call this premium and higher grade MSW?
Wang zhong wang (王中王), tai shang huang (太上皇), gao shan (高山), shen xian guo (神仙果) are some other supposed variants marketed as a premium of MSW.
Newbies have to be extra careful when coming across such names. Shady sellers are hardwired to prey on you like a rooster on centipede when they realise you don’t know your durians. WZW for example, is a term that has also been marketed for different durians including IOI. So one might think that they are getting a premium MSW when ordering WZW. But end up with something else when delivered. Many wouldn’t even know that they’ve been misled. 猫王 (elvis) is also not the same as 猫山王 (MSW), so don’t mistake them as such.
And MSW from Thailand that somehow made it’s way to Singapore are usually marketed with one of these fancy names.
It’s a wild world out there in this market.
Farmers also often talk about the extra effort they put in to care for these “premium” fruits. While it is something to be applauded, take note that extra effort does not necessarily mean higher quality. What it definitely means is extra costs… a cost that will eventually be passed to consumers. Wild durians in the jungles for instance, can also produce high quality fruits when left on their own.
Whatever the branding, they are all 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.
One common attribute of younger trees of MSW is that they tend to produce fruits with longer stems.
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. It is said that over 70% of MSW supply today comes from this state.
Because of how the monsoon season from the Southwest and Northeast affects the harvesting periods in different states such as Penang in the west, Pahang in the east and Johor in the south, 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 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. It hit as low as $9/kg in 2022, probably because the mega supply meant for export to China spilled over into Singapore due to import restrictions imposed by the former.
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.
However, this very “optimistic” forecast takes into account the China demand factor with various assumptions. And it is not necessarily just about the simple economic balance of demand and supply.
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 under 2kg tend to be better quality.
The best I’ve had was one which weighed about 1kg. It came with 8 seeds and I instantly realised that greatness was before me on the first bite. I only had 2 seeds and shared the rest. There’s something about sharing that makes the durianing experience so much more fulfilling. I think it’s something that most durianers would implicitly understand.
Even today we are still talking about that particular MSW which raised the benchmark that we compare the standards of others against. The black golds today that are supposedly superior to regular MSW can’t hold a candle to it.
In recent years, the prices for some cultivars have occasionally surpassed MSW. Most notably the rare black thorn cultivar and Tupai 226. But this is attributed more to their low supply rather than super high demand.
And if you find MSW too expensive to digest, then maybe it’s a good excuse to try some lesser known but great alternatives comparable to it.
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.