Durian season is in full swing, and the King of Fruits is cashing in on our cravings with all-you-can-eat spreads — some of which you can smell from a mile away. But one cafe has taken a slightly different approach, digging into the intricacies of durian by revealing a typically unseen side of the stinky fruit.
At 99 Old Trees, a modern-looking cozy space tucked away in the sleepy Farrer Park neighborhood of hawker eateries and convenience stores, durians are the sole obsession. It’s the retail arm of Fook Gor Durian Farm in West Pahang, Malaysia, and its name comes from the fact that the land is home to 99 old durian trees, which have flourished since the first seed was planted in 1986.
What started as an online retailer in 2017 offering fresh durians delivered daily to Singapore later expanded to a physical shop in 2018, bringing in Mao Shan Wang, D24, and Tekka varieties, as well as supplies from Fook Gor’s family farms in Johor Bahru.
But this is no ordinary durian store. Sure, it sells the spiky fruit when it’s in season, and it doles out durian cakes and desserts during off-peak months. Yet it’s also recently set upon an unconventional path with the launch of its durian “omakase” experience earlier this month, welcoming fans and inquisitive visitors to the place.
Hosting up to eight customers over two weekly time slots, each about an hour long, SukaWa (meaning “as I prefer” in a mix of Malay and Hokkien) takes you on a food tour across uncommon varieties while answering your questions about all things durian (and sometimes beyond).
Anchored either by director and “Chief Durian Officer” Kelvin Tan, 35, or his business partner Wan Chee Kang, 38, the sessions are as entertaining as they are educational and enjoyable. Gleefully, Tan introduces us to Wan, who goes by the nickname Ah Qiang, as a Bruno Mars lookalike. They have a resemblance going, but you’ve gotta give props to the cafe for going all out to cement the comparison with a looping soundtrack of the American singer’s 25K magic tunes.
Once you’ve settled into your high chair by the bar counter, Tan instantly makes you feel at ease as he chatters away about durians. Coming from a background in paper packaging sales, he confesses he’s always been a fan of the fruit and finally decided to take the leap to switch industries back in 2017. With SukaWa, he wanted to break down the barriers in buying durian so customers are more informed and less apprehensive about the process.
Throughout the “meal,” Tan walks you through the different types of durians, giving you insights to their taste profiles. You get to try at least six durian cultivars plus unlimited portions of Mao Shan Wang or D24, depending on the availability, along with a dessert starter of either durian choux puff or durian mousse, a ginger tea palate cleanser, and a whole coconut to “cool” down after all that hearty (heaty?) feasting.
Since the sessions are meant to offer a peek into the world of durians, the team brings in a rotating mix of husks from Johor, Pahang, and Penang in a limited number meant only for SukaWa customers. On our visit, we sampled seeds from the creamy and eggy D101, the tougher, fibrous D88, the floral, bittersweet Tekka (the table’s favorite), and the mild-tasting D1, which Tan says is good for easing beginners into appreciating the contentious fruit.
Other varieties you could come across include the pale and slightly bitter D17, the mild and sweet Hor Lor, the sharp, bitter Golden Phoenix, and the intensely-flavored Black Thorn.
By the time the clock ticks past an hour, you’d have learned more about durians than you ever knew. Tidbits we gathered include how durian grades actually say more about their shape or size than the quality, and how the thorny fruit needs a bit of time after falling from the tree to come into its full flavor before you eat it.
Facts gathered, myths busted, and stomachs satisfied, you’ll leave the cafe a little happier (and heavier) than before.
The next round of SukaWa sessions start from July 29-Aug 15; Tues, Wed and/or Thurs 4pm-5pm at 99 Old Trees, #01-277 Blk 46 Owen Rd. Reservations required.
Regular opening hours: Daily 11:30am-9pm on off-peak period, 11:30am-11pm during durian season.
MRT: Farrer Park