How The Red Prawn Durian Got It’s Seafood Name
For those who are newly inducted into the durian lovefest, it can seem really confusing as to how a thorny-husked fruit managed to get a commercial name as salty as red prawn.
But for those who have had their fill, the answer should be more obvious.
The red prawn cultivar is almost exclusively associated to Penang just like how musang king is to Pahang. The mother tree was said to be at a site in Pondok Upeh within Balik Pulau. The oldest grafted trees today planted by Mr Lee, who red prawn is registered to, are around 60 years old.
It is called hong xia (红虾) in Chinese and hong ha or ang hae depending on the dialect. And udang merah in Malay.
The official registration number is D175 which is a reference to it’s record on the list of Malaysian national crops.
It is also a champion durian. Winning the penang competition in 1989.
The win gave exposure. Which in turn induced other farmers to try the cultivar. And after tasting it themselves, they were sent into a frenzy to plant it on their own plantations.
During it’s peak season when grade A red prawns are available in Penang, price per kilogram can sometimes compete with that of musang kings.
This is partly because of it’s marginal scarcity somewhat like black thorn. And also due to how it made it’s name with it’s crazy demand during it’s hey days in the late 1980s and early 1990s when it garnered quite a reputation.
Maybe in a subjective way, we can probably say that if D24 XO enjoyed the same celebrity of musang king in the past, then red prawn mania in the past can be compared the black thorn madness of today.
Durian tourists should also note that in Singapore and Johor, the D13 is often sold under the red prawn moniker riding on the fame of the original cultivar from Penang. This is mostly due to the appearance of fruitlets of D13 being dark orange and shaped like a prawn, giving it an aesthetic affiliation to the seafood alias.
Many find this practice misleading and unscrupulous.
Well… it’s a wild world out there. Which is why it pays to know your durians.
If this malpractice occurs in Penang, the place of origin, you can bet that there would be a public uproar and the culprit would be shamed for compromising the illustrious heritage associated with red prawn.
If durian is a religion, it goes without saying that the durian god would visit Penang via first class to ensure retribution is served.
Often times, all you need to do is ask the seller whether it is D175. But there’s also no guarantee that he or she would not lie through his or her teeth.
So how do you know that you are gorging on Penang red prawn instead of Johor red prawn in Singapore?
It must be added at this time that in Singapore, a huge portion of Penang red prawn durians (D175) actually come from Johor nowadays.
Features of red prawn durians
The red prawn has a dull and faded shade of green for it’s outer husk. In fact, some people might perceive it more as greyish brown than green.
Then there are those who find it’s appearance resembling a poor durian covered with ash and dust from neglect. It can actually look like pineapple from certain perspective angles.
They are mostly found in the weight range of 1kg to 2kg. The best quality ones tend to be those around 1.5kg and below.
I personally like to get those that are around 1kg or slightly under. Buying smaller sized durians carry more risk as it is more than possible that there are only 1 or 2 pods with fruitlets inside. But it’s a risk that I am willing to take as I have had noticeably better experiences with smaller red prawns.
Saying that, I’ve had those above 2kg and my jaw dropped when I saw those jumbo prawns. Some sellers would call these big D175s lobster… which makes sense since they are huge prawns. But be mindful that there’s another powerful durian named lobster. Don’t get mixed up and confused.
It’s concave thorns are spaced-out, short and thinner with sharp pointy tips that are considered small by durian standards. Somewhat like D2.
The brown lines that run around the perimeter of each spike look like valleys of a green planet filled with mountain peaks throughout it’s surface.
It is at this time when you might notice that the base outline of individual spikes is prominently shaped like a pentagon or hexagon. It can look like the back of a tortoise shell. This is one distinctive feature to tell apart a genuine red prawn from a poser.
And unlike other distinctive cultivars with bald bottoms, the red prawn’s spikes go all the way to the bottom with no noticeable bald spot. Making it almost impossible to stand upright on it’s own.
The overall shape is generally somewhat similar to a rugby ball. More rounded ones can look like the underbelly of a puffed-up puffer fish.
It also has a slightly raised spiky rim at the point where the long stem meets the thorns on the top.
For this particular cultivar, fruits from old trees are often observed to have much slimmer stems than those from young trees. This does not mean that all old fruits will definitely have slim stems. But that fruits with slim stems will most likely have fallen from old trees.
While the seams can be clearly observed as thornless lines running from the base of the stem to the bottom of the fruit.
This is usually an easy durian to open. Sometimes stubborn but not in the class of tekka and green skin. Yet even so, just as with a lot of things in life, you’d eventually succeed with perseverance. You’d not be calling the durian opening emergency hotline for this.
And as you might expect, when you pry open the husk to reveal the goodness in it, you would be greeted by a slightly curved group of fruitlets shaped and looking like cooked prawns.
These fruitlets tend to be quite some distance from the surface of the outer husk. Meaning you would find quite a white gap between the fruitlet and the outer rind.
You can definitely say that when purchasing a whole fruit, you get much more husk than flesh for this one.
The texture of the durian flesh (or meat) is unusually soft under a layer of ultra thin skin. So much so that you might fear the fruitlets popping if you pierce it with a needle.
Even a surgeon with delicate handling abilities would find it a humongous challenge to handle them without making a finger imprint on the flesh.
Some can be so watery that when you hold it with your hand, the flesh can roll down your fingers like ice-cream.
The fruitlet has a light-red to pale yellow colour with a surface that can be described as visually rough rather than wrinkled. The colour pink is a term that is sometimes used to describe it.
Those that spot bruises, especially when the blue-black parts look like stripes, are often cheekily referred to as tiger prawn.
However, durian trees of this cultivar is rather sensitive as the flesh colour can vary from close to pale-white all the way to orange-yellow. Even the husk can vary from grey to green. This is not just about climate as even different farms in close proximity can end up with fruits with different colours. So the difference in appearance is most likely due to how the trees are cared for and the nutrition they draw from different types of fertilizers.
But the classic colour is grey husk and pinkish white as observed from the above pictures.
The flavor of red prawn durians is diverse but mostly sweet with a tinge of alcohol. Which is why people sometimes compare eating it with drinking red wine.
With a second serving, you might be able to taste a fruity or flower-like flavor to it, the berry taste that it is infamous for.
Some people describe this berry taste as chocolatey. I kid you not. A friend of mine is one of those. We took a bite from the same fruitlet and he insisted on the chocolate flavour while I tasted berry. So YMMV.
It has little to no fiber. And a little sticky in texture.
The texture feels light like how you’d compare plain water to milk. But the taste is as compact as the latter. This combination is a big reason why it’s such a formidable durian.
As such, red prawns are often said to be a great durian for newbies new to durian tasting.
This is because rookies would probably not be able to appreciate bitter durians as that requires an acquired taste.
So if you want to get a friend who’ve never tried durians hooked on the king of fruits so that you have someone to accompany you for a durian tour in the future, red prawns is a serious candidate to consider.
However, sometimes we can find red prawns with a bitter taste. This blend of bitter notes is what hardcore red prawn fanatics crave for. Growers attribute this feature to climate that is unusually hot. And of course, the age of the tree plays a prominent role too.
With that said, the taste of this durian can vary wildly between those that has hit the ground and those that have not. If you don’t know, durians hitting the ground when dropped supposedly triggers a natural fermentation process.
For red prawn, one that has not gone through this stage can sometimes taste remarkably different than those that have. So if you don’t see signs that one has hit the ground, you can artificially trigger it by beating it with a tool or drop it manually on the floor. Then consume it hours later.
The best methodology to have D175 is to grab one in the morning that has dropped on the ground, and consume it in the evening.
Red prawn is probably the most widely appreciated durian among the masses. I’ve met people who don’t like musang king, black thorn, D24, and the lot. But I cannot recall anyone who has a repulsive reaction to this.
You will also often find that the flesh is naturally separated from the seed.
The seeds of this durian is not large by durian standards, but also cannot be compared to the small size of mao shan wang. So it can be deemed as medium size.
However, it is not uncommon to find seeds of this durian varying greatly in size inside the same fruit.
The size of seeds is getting very unpredictable these days due to the sheer amount of grafted trees for this cultivar. Farmers were rushing to plant this decades ago just like how they were for D24, and more recently musang king and black thorn.
D175 is also quite resistant to uneven ripeness issues. I cannot remember the last time (if any) when I’ve opened one with some lobes unripe. So with this being a low risk, I’d say that getting those that are more rounded is better due to the higher flesh-to-weight yield.
Again, it is important to stress that we are referring to authentic red prawns from Penang… that are also grown in Johor plantations. Expert durianers often say that those from Johor tend to have a much greener husk.
Red prawn harvest season
The typical peak season for this species of durian is around mid to end July.
Almost every farm in Penang would have some of these trees on their plantation due to the celebrity of the cultivar decades ago. Which also means that most of them are older trees.
Because of the naturally low harvest of each tree compared to other cultivars, the low supply outside of Penang can sometimes lead to fans paying way over the odds to have their fill. This is especially so for durian tourists.
And because of strong local demand, little shipments of red prawn durians from Penang make their way to other countries. Even getting to KL is a challenge.
This low harvest per tree, which can be as little as half that of a comparable musang king tree, means that many farmers find it more economically worthwhile to cultivate other types of durian trees.
The implications of all these is that if you are hunting for it, do grab it when you come across one. Because you might have to wait for a whole year before another chance comes along.
Finally, it’s worth pointing out again that caution must be practiced not to mistake the D13 as D175 red prawn as the former would visually be more fitting for this name.