Penang is fondly regarded as Malaysia’s food capital. If you ask a few locals what food they would recommend you will get suggestions with a wide range of variety. There is not one particular food that is the absolute champion in Penang.
When it comes to fruit however the story has a bit of a twist. Penang has a very high density of durian orchards relative to its area. Do a general search for “fruit orchard” in Penang and you will be presented with no less than a dozen results for durian orchards with little variety.
However Penang doesn’t hold the crown for the capital of durian in Malaysia. That goes to Pahang, the major exporter of the coveted Musang King variety. But, let us take a look at some of the most popular fruits in Penang and how they fit in to Penangites’ palate.
Of course the “King Of Fruits” should have the honour of first mention. Its popularity has encouraged many to cultivate durian all over the island. Penang even held the annual ‘Penang Durian Festival’ and is a major tourist attraction. The last one was held in 2019 and has been put on hold ever since due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among Westerners durian is notorious for its smell. Some describe it as pungent, sulfuric, acrid, and even rotten. They are banned in many establishments such as airports and hotels (even in Malaysia) because its fragrance lingers. I’m sure many of the local readers would be puzzled by this description. To many who are accustomed to it they smell sweet and fragrant, even appetizing. It is also very nutritious despite having a high sugar content. Another one of its notoriety is how it can leave those who consume it feeling hot. That is highly likely because of the high sugar content. For that reason durian is best consumed in moderation.
Once durian has reached the correct ripeness it will continue to ripen at an alarmingly fast rate. After it has fallen off the tree and still in its husk, it is best consumed within two to three days. It can be stalled by refrigeration that prolongs its edibility. After its “best by” period the flesh will start to somewhat ferment. So durian is quite a tricky fruit to sell, but very rewarding and commands a high price in the right season. No fruit stall can be competitive without at least a seasonal inclusion of durian for sale.
Mango is another fruit highly in demand not just in Malaysia but throughout South East Asia. Tangy, sweet, fragrant, easy to peel, juicy, and satisfyingly fleshy, mangoes have all the right qualities to become anyone’s favorite.
Mangoes are also eaten when they are unripe as snacks. At this stage the flesh is dense, pale, and sour. Unripe mangoes are not usually eaten as is but are made into pickles, or eaten with dips and sauces.
In Penang, mangoes are not widely grown and mostly brought in either from Malaysian orchards or imported from Thailand or Indonesia. There is a healthy demand for mangoes in Penang and your local fruit supplier may have some for wholesale purchases if you ever want to stock up.
Papaya is quite often eaten after meals. When ripe, they are sweet and juicy. Penang is not a big cultivator of papaya and brings them in from neighbouring states. Nowadays the supply and demand is steady, but there was a time in 2009 when the demand overwhelmed the supply capability and forced sellers to raise prices considerably. It was a small local news, but enough to highlight the demand for it in Penang. Fruit suppliers in Penang often focus on durian when they are in season, leaving fruits such as papaya behind in their stock until the end of the durian season.
While usually harvested and eaten when ripe, unripe papaya is often used to make pickles as well. It is a popular snack in Penang. You can see them sold all over Penang island in street stalls and night markets and plenty of times they are the most popular food sold there. They are usually served in brine or with a sprinkling of plum powder (Malaysians will know them more commonly as “serbuk asam”). Some even serve them in spicy brine containing chilies.
We will end the list here with guava. There are three major varieties of guava and they are named by the colour of their flesh; red, pink, and white. Red and pink guavas are tangy and considerably sweeter. However, oddly enough they are not the more popular variety among the sweet tooth Penangites. In fact they are quite a rare sight, not just in Penang but in the whole country. The most popular guava is the white variety. It has a more sour taste and often has a grainy texture.
So why is it more popular than the other two, with some journals describing the red and pink guavas as “the very best tasting guavas”? It is quite a conundrum but that is how it is.
Perhaps the reason the white guava is so popular is because white guavas when eaten with plum powder or served as pickles are quite delightful snacks. Like unripe papayas and mangoes their acidity and crunch works well as pickled snacks. Penangites love their pickled fruits, and this is perhaps why the white guava is the most demanded guava in the market.
While this is not an extensive list it is an interesting insight into not just Penang’s taste in fruit but also Malaysians in general. Tropical fruits are still pretty much the go to when Penangites are feeling peckish for a little snack.Check out the Fresh Harvest website for some fresh fruits!