Durian’s Best Kept Secret

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Back in the seventies (ahem), Saturday Night Live did a sketch about Scotch Boutique, a store that sold nothing but Scotch Tape. They carried a variety of widths and lengths to be sure, but that was it. Just Scotch Tape.

MK Durian Group at 5806 6th Ave in Sunset Park, Brooklyn sells nothing but durian. They carry a variety of cultivars and variations to be sure, but that’s it. Just durian.

And the durian they carry is wonderful.

You’ve probably heard the oft-quoted aphorism about it, “Tastes like heaven, smells like hell” (some would have the order of the phrases swapped but you get the idea), so much so that the fruit is banned from hotels, airlines and mass transit in some parts of the world. (And yes, I’ve been known to smuggle some well-wrapped samples home on the subway.) If you’ve never tasted durian, you might discover that you actually like it; a number of folks I’ve introduced it to on ethnojunkets have experienced that epiphany. There are gateway durian goodies too, like sweet durian pizza (yes, really), durian ice cream, candies, and freeze dried snacks and they’re all acceptable entry points as far as I’m concerned.

It’s difficult to pinpoint what durian smells like. The scent appears to defy description; I’ve encountered dozens of conflicting sardonic similes, but suffice it to say that most people find it downright unpleasant. Although I have a pretty keen sniffer, somehow its powerful essence doesn’t offend me although I am acutely aware of it – just lucky I guess, or perhaps I’m inured to it – because this greatly maligned, sweet, tropical, custardy fruit is truly delicious. So I was thrilled to learn about MK Durian Group (aka MK International Group) from Dave Cook (Eating In Translation) whom I accompanied on a visit there.

Often called the King of Fruits (perhaps because you’d want to think twice about staging an uprising against its thorny mass and pungent aroma), it comes by its reputation honestly but with a footnote. The divine-to-demonic ratio varies depending upon the cultivar and, if I understand correctly, a window of opportunity when certain cultivars are sweet and nearly odorless simultaneously. This, I believe, is durian’s best kept secret. But more about that in a moment. (Click on any photo to view it in high resolution.)

MK Durian Group works directly with plantations in Malaysia and is a wholesaler and distributor to restaurants and retailers in addition to catering to walk-in customers. We entered the commodious space with its many tables, all unoccupied at the time. Chinese-captioned signs showing photos of fifteen cultivars and another seven in English decked the walls along with a menu that, in addition to a price list for the fruit itself, included durian pancakes, mochi, and a variety of cakes, buns, and biscuits, a concession to the timid, perhaps. Durian cultivars are typically known by a common name and a code number starting with the letter “D”, so you might see Sultan (D24) or Musang King (D197), but sometimes you’ll find just the code numbers or sometimes just names like XO or Kim Hong. Scientists continue to work on hybrids to maximize flavor and minimize unpleasant smell.
Fion, without whom I would have been at a complete loss, urged us to get the Musang King, often regarded as the king of the King of Fruits. She selected one from the freezer case and microwaved it for a few minutes to thaw it but not warm it up. Our four pounder, stripped of seeds and rind, ultimately produced about one pound of (expensive but) delicious fruit.Using an apparatus that looked a little like some sort of medieval torture device to crack the husk, she then adeptly removed the yellow pods; each pod contains a single seed that can be used in cooking like those of jackfruit. We took our treasure to one of the tables where boxes of plastic poly gloves were as ubiquitous as bottles of ketchup would be on tables at a diner.

That Musang King was perhaps the best durian I had ever tasted, so much so that my new personal aphorism is “Durian: The fruit that makes its own custard.”

You may have seen durian in Chinatown in yellow plastic mesh bags where the fruit is often sold by the container and you don’t have to buy a whole one; you might conceivably experiment with whatever is available. But these were a cut above. As we left, I realized that something about the experience had been unusual: I asked Dave if he had noticed any of the customary malodourous bouquet. He replied no, but he thought perhaps he was a little congested that morning. I knew I wasn’t congested that morning. There had been no unpleasant smell to contend with. Had we stumbled upon that elusive golden window of odorless but sweet opportunity? Was that particular Musang King odor free? Or perhaps all of them in that lot? Did it have something to do with the fact that it had been frozen and thawed? We were beyond the point of going back and asking Fion, but I think it’s worth a return visit to get some answers!
 
 

Golden Pillow

Instagram Post 6/9/2018

(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)


If having fun with food is for kids, then set your inner child free on this one:

Here is the bread,

Sliced without worry.

Open the doors

And see all the curry!

Curry Chicken with Potatoes, that is. This is the mammoth curry chicken bun, identified as Golden Pillow on the menu, that you may have heard about and it’s as tasty as it is fun; remember that you need to order it a day in advance. (Note: we removed the curry chicken from the plastic and foil cooking pouch for the final photo; it made for easier dipping!) Little House Café at 90-19 Corona Ave in Elmhurst, Queens is an Asian fusion venue with a few tables and a delicious way with Malaysian food; I’ve raved about their Curry Mee with Young Tao Fu as well as their colorful multi-layered taro cake previously. When you go, don’t neglect their great baked goods and desserts to round out your meal or to take home for a midnight snack.
 
 

Let’s Makan

Instagram Post 5/29/2018

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Let’s Makan (“makan” = “eat” in Malay), a newcomer to Manhattan’s Chinatown at 64A Bayard St, proves the adage that good things come in small packages. Every foodie I know is buzzing about this little snack shop’s Apam Balik, a Malaysian crêpe (available in traditional, pandan, ube, or chocolate), folded around a filling (your choice of butter, ube, Nutella, pumpkin, taro, or kaya), with toppings like peanuts, corn, toasted coconut flakes, cornflakes, or seasonal fruit. And if the decision sounds overwhelming, they have some tried and true suggestions for you like “Auntie’s Favorite”.

1) Open wide! Here’s a peek inside my pandan apam balik with kaya (a jam made from coconut, eggs, and sugar), peanuts, and corn.
2) …in progress…
3) …lined up and ready to rock.

Sweet and so delicious! Speaking with the enterprising owner, Michelle Lam, I was impressed with how passionate they are about bringing unique and authentic Malaysian flavors here; I’ll return soon to try their savory dishes too, like Pan Mee, Curry Chicken Rice, Nasi Lemak, and Flat Rice Noodle with a variety of delectable additions – more decisions! I highly recommend that you check out Let’s Makan as soon as you can; bring your appetite and don’t forget your sweet tooth!
 
 

Little House – Taro Cake

Instagram Post 5/24/2018

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A place of many delicious wonders, I am compelled to return to Little House Café, 90-19 Corona Ave in Elmhurst, Queens as soon as possible. It’s an Asian fusion counter service venue with a few tables and remarkable food; in addition to having the best Curry Mee with Young Tao Fu I’ve ever tasted, the sweets and desserts were a cut above as well. One of the most dramatic was this layered taro cake: gelatin, custard, taro, cake. Each layer brought something unique to the party: sweet, creamy, textured, fluffy. Remarkably, I was able to polish off the whole thing in one sitting because it wasn’t too sweet.

Yeah, that must’ve been why. 🐷

…and the cutaway stepped view.
 
 

Little House Cafe

Instagram Post 4/26/2018

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Most folks like soup well enough. As a matter of fact, there are those who can’t get through a cold, rainy day without an ample, piping hot bowl of it. But for me, no soup ever seemed to ascend to the droolworthy, shout-it-from-the-rooftops level of recommendation. Until now. Go to Little House Café, 90-19 Corona Ave in Elmhurst, Queens, and get the Curry Mee with Young Tao Fu, N4 on the menu. Described as “yellow noodles served in a spicy lemongrass coconut curry with vegetables and tofu stuffed with minced fish,” their version has a deeper, richer flavor profile than many of the variations I’ve sampled elsewhere.

Little House Café is an Asian fusion counter service venue with a few tables and a sizable array of baked goods (more on that aspect in a future post) all of which were top notch – and all of which point to a return visit before long!

h/t Joe DiStefano, Chopsticks and Marrow
 
 

Wok Wok – Part 2

Instagram Post 3/29/2018

Part Two of my review of Wok Wok Southeast Asian Kitchen, 11 Mott Street, Manhattan with its dizzying array of Southeast Asian fare. Check out yesterday’s post below to see four more photos of their great cuisine.
(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)

Spicy Sambal Seafood – plump and juicy jumbo shrimp sautéed in spicy Malaysian belacan sambal with onions and peppers was delicious – best enjoyed over rice.

Malaysian Salt & Pepper Pork Chop had a tiny bit of sweet and sour sauce gracing it. We’ve tasted versions of this dish that were crisper and thinner and unadorned by any manner of sauce. Not bad at all, but not what we were expecting from the name.

Four of a Kind Belacan – to me, the only thing these four vegetables have in common is that they’re all green! Beyond that, the flavors, textures, and even the shapes differ radically – and that’s a good thing in my opinion. String beans, eggplant, okra (not at all slimy), and sato are united by the medium spicy belacan sambal; the combo of stink bean and belacan work well together and are a singularly Malaysian flavor profile.

Stir Fry Pearl Noodle featured eggs, bell pepper, Spanish onion, scallion, and bean sprouts with pork. This is actually one of my favorite dishes and not all that easy to find. Pearl noodles, sometimes known as silver noodles, silver needles, and other fanciful names, are chewy rice noodles that are thick at one end and then taper to a point at the other (look closely at the little tail at the bottom of the photo). These are generally stir-fried to pick up a little browning and a lot of “wok hay”, that ineffable taste/aroma that can only be achieved by ferocious cooking over incendiary heat. Not at all spicy, this one is always a favorite.

Due to a communications mix-up, a couple of dishes came out that weren’t what we ordered. Everything we tasted that day was very good, but I want to make sure that you don’t end up with two or three similar dishes – one belacan and/or sato offering is plenty for the table, you see – because I want you to experience a broad range of flavors, and Wok Wok is most assuredly up to the task. Choose a wide variety of disparate dishes, perhaps even from different parts of Southeast Asia, and you’ll go home happy and satisfied!
 
 

Wok Wok – Part 1

Instagram Post 3/28/2018

Ever been up for Southeast Asian food but couldn’t decide which cuisine would best tickle your tastebuds? Then Wok Wok Southeast Asian Kitchen, 11 Mott Street, Manhattan, has your answer. They cover a lot of territory serving up dishes from Malaysia 🇲🇾, Thailand 🇹🇭, Indonesia 🇮🇩, Vietnam 🇻🇳, Philippines 🇵🇭, India 🇮🇳, Singapore 🇸🇬, and various regions of China 🇨🇳, and perusing their colorful menu is like taking a survey course in popular street food of the region.

Part One…. (Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)

We started with Original Roti, a dish you may know as roti canai, consisting of Indian style flatbread with a chicken and potato curry sauce for dipping. Properly crispy outside and fluffy within, it was the perfect medium for savoring the luscious sauce.

Roti Murtabak, another crepe folded around a spiced chicken and egg mixture also accompanied by the potato chicken curry, had a pleasantly spicy little kick to it. A cut above what we’ve had elsewhere.


Our soup course was Hakka Mushroom Pan Mee, a study in contrasts. Springy handmade noodles topped with silvery crispy dried anchovies, earthy mushrooms, chewy bits of minced pork, and tender greens in a clear broth that was richer than I anticipated.

Spicy Minced Chicken, Shrimp and Sato. Ground chicken and chunks of shrimp with sato cooked in a belacan based sauce. Sato, also known as petai and sometimes stink bean, is a little bitter, a little smelly perhaps, but quite delicious. Belacan is fermented fish paste; most Southeast Asian cuisines have their own spin on this pungent condiment, and it’s particularly characteristic of Malaysian food. Maybe it’s an acquired taste, but I think this dish is delicious.

Stay tuned. More to come tomorrow….
 
 

Durian Pizza at C Fruitlife

Instagram Post 10/18/2017

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You know the old adage about durian, right? “Smells like hell, tastes like heaven!” Well, this may be the gateway drug for durian novitiates: Durian Pizza at C Fruitlife, 135-29 Roosevelt Ave, Flushing, Queens. For those of you who are curious about the flavor of durian, this offering is very mild and may well ease you into some comfy durian love; and for those of us who are hardcore durianheads, we wouldn’t mind if this were even a little more, um, pungent! They offer two versions, Musang King, the Malaysian variety, and the less expensive Monthong from Thailand. Lots of other Hong Kong style desserts as well as snacks to be found, some with a more salubrious bent, some just for fruity sweetness.
 
 

You Say Gnetum, I Say Gnemon – Let’s Call the Whole Thing Oats

Gnetum GnemonMy interminable quest to discover the ultimate ethnic crunchy snack led me to Top Line Supermarket at 81-37 Broadway in Elmhurst, Queens. (Interminable, by the way, because there are so many outrageously good ethnic crunchies out there that there will clearly never be Just One Ultimate, thus making it a delightfully sisyphean task.) Indonesian ingredients are not that easy to come by around these parts, but Top Line arguably offers the best concentration of Indonesian and Malaysian items in NYC. (Got a better one, ethnofoodies? Let me know!)

Quick vocabulary lesson:

  • Gnetum gnemon — a plant (actually a tree) native to southeast Asia, known in Indonesian as melinjo or belinjo, and in English as padi oats or paddy oats. The seeds are ground into flour and used to make:
  • Emping — chips that are very popular in Indonesia (along with many other varieties of crackers generically called krupuk). They are available in a number of varieties including:
  • Manis — sweet; Pedas — spicy; and Madu — honey.

There. Now you can translate the packages as well as I can.

What are they like? Wonderful, obviously, or I wouldn’t be telling you about them. More crunchy than crispy, a little sticky right out of the package. Of the two varieties I found available under the Kukagumi brand, I like the sweet/spicy combo a little better than the honey version, but I do tend to favor spicy in general. The heat level of the pedas was within the bounds of my co-conspirators that day (some of whom draw the line at wasabi peas to give you a comparative frame of reference). Padi oats have a slight bitter, but not at all unpleasant, aftertaste. They’re not really “oatey” in the Cheerios sense since they’re another species, but they’re more like oats than corn or wheat since there’s a satisfying nuttiness to them. The Rotary brand offers larger pieces that are seasoned less heavy-handedly – a little less spicy and a little less sweet than Kukagumi. Perhaps even a little more sophisticated than Kukagumi, it allowed the flavor of the padi oats to come through with more definition. And I recently discovered Zona brand emping pedas camouflaged in loopy, orange and red Western style packaging. Crisper than Kukagumi and Rotary, their sweet spiciness is akin to Shark brand Sriracha (the Thai Sriracha). All three brands are excellent choices.

These are ready-to-eat, but a version that requires deep frying first is also available.

If you don’t feel like venturing into Elmhurst, there’s always Amazon for Spicy Gnetum Gnemon (Emping Manis Pedas) or Honey Gnetum Gnemon (Emping Manis Madu).

Gnetum gnemon — Eat ’em: get ’em!