“You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline; and it helps if you have some kind of a football team or some nuclear weapons. But, at the very least, you need a beer.” (Frank Zappa) Indonesia can boast everything that Zappa dreamed of – except that the archipelago hasn’t gone nuclear. The Republic of Indonesia isn’t exactly a virgin when it comes to brewing beer, and she prides herself on three locally-created ales – the ubiquitous Bintang Pilsener; Bintang’s cheaper, more bitter sidekick Anker; and Bali’s niche, sickly-sweet Bali Hai. But if push comes to shove? It’s PT. Multi Bintang Indonesia’s Bintang beer – brewed under the watchful eye of Holland’s drinks company, Heineken – that has always won over Indonesia’s thirstiest hearts and throats.
Fittingly, bintang in Indonesian means ‘star’. And in this country, it’s a champ. The beer’s Heineken-style, red-starred logo can be seen on merchandise across the length and breadth of the archipelago: from cigarette lighters and baseball caps to the flashing beacons outside some of the country’s darker karaoke bars – and to the walking beer adverts dressed in Bintang T-shirts and tank-tops that criss-cross the hot streets of Bali’s Kuta.
Bintang in Indonesia’s History
Bintang is no new-kid-on-the-block. The beer was, unsurprisingly, first brewed in Surabaya in 1929 during the period of Dutch colonial rule. In 1957, once Indonesia had become independent under the anti-Western President Sukarno, his left-leaning government appropriated the brewery before Heineken retook control of operations in 1967 under the right-wing President Suharto. It’s a political-football thing.
Bintang, Bintang Zero and Bintang Radler
Bintang beer is a brave attempt at a pale, American-style lager – boasting a malty, hoppy finish not far from its parent ale, Heineken. It isn’t the weakest beer in the world: weighing in at a hefty 4.7%, it won’t take many in Indonesia’s tropical heat to make you wish you’d stuck to the fruit juice.
PT Multi Bintang Indonesia Tbk also brews a local version of Heineken for the Indonesian market – while Heineken’s step-daughter Bintang now comes in three flavours. There’s the standard, full-alcohol pilsner that decorates bar-tops from Sumatra to Flores; the newer, Muslim-friendly, alcohol-free version aptly named ‘Bintang Zero’; and the newest, lemonade-like ‘Bintang Radler’ – weighing in at a mummy-friendly 2% alcohol.
Alcohol and the Law in Indonesia Today
In 2015, the future of Indonesia’s favourite beer is looking cloudy. A recently passed by-law has removed all alcoholic drinks from the shelves of the nation’s convenience stores – except for Bali, of course, where you can still buy a cold Bintang from your 7/11. The next country-wide law being drawn up would ban alcohol altogether in Indonesia – a move that might prove unpopular with Mr. Bintang and his merry crew.
Get Your Bintang Shirt On
Many of the world’s keenest beer enthusiasts have swilled Bintang around their highly-trained palates and arrived at verdicts ranging from: “Very weak taste”, to “Good fizz and a fair amount of malt; a very light beer that pours a lighter shade”. Let’s face it: Bintang isn’t about to win any top awards at the Oktoberfest. But much can be forgiven after the first cool mouthful on a hot day.
If you’re from the UK, try ordering a bottle in one of the further-flung corners of Indonesia: it’ll be reassuringly warm, just like back home. If you’re from the USA, and you arrive during a power-cut, you might want to ‘get local’: ask for some es batu (‘ice-block’), chip away at it until it fits in your glass, let it settle for a moment… and sip. It’s an acquired taste, but it’s refreshing. And it rehydrates you, too.
The honest verdict on Bintang? As a tropical lager designed for cool refreshment over flavour, it wins every time.
Bintang: The Verdict
More than a few international travellers have emptied a bottle or two of Indonesia’s fizziest: from the darkest corners of Jakarta’s nightclubs to the brightest Sumbawan beach. The honest verdict? As a tropical lager that has been designed for cool refreshment over flavour, it wins every time.
After all, it’s usually the only beer on the menu.
Modern Indonesia was mapped by Dutch traders in their obsessive search for precious spices. After a near-disastrous first voyage in 1595, spice routes were opened up to Holland – and led to the birth of the Dutch East India Company. This is the story of the rise of the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie – the VOC – and its spectacular fall from grace.
The Scent of The Spice Islands
Before the vanguard of the United East Indian Company – the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or ‘VOC’ – landed on Java in 1595, the Malay archipelago was already a booming trade zone. The East Indies – now modern Indonesia – was a melting pot of missionaries, traders and adventurers selling religion, spices and gold. From the earliest Indian, Chinese and Arabian merchants to the Portuguese who arrived late in 1511, the Indonesian people were no strangers to outsiders.
Setting foot on Indonesian soil for the first time, the Portuguese would have found a geographically-fractured collection of volcanic islands split by warring kingdoms – but joined together by a common desire for maritime trade. The islands’ heady perfume of exotic spices drew Spaniards, Dutch and the English to Indonesia’s shores in search of riches. But it was the Dutch, under the freelance flag of the VOC, who would eventually lay the foundations for the modern Indonesian state.
Who Were the VOC?
The Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie – known to the English as the Dutch East India Company – was the first ever private company owned entirely by its shareholders. It was the original multinational corporation, and the first ever company to issue stock.
Over the years, the VOC stretched from America, Africa and Japan to the East Indies. Its goal: to make as much money as possible. They achieved this beyond their wildest dreams – if the VOC was around today the company would be worth around $7.5 trillion (the number calculated for inflation), which is 10 times more than the present valuation of Apple or Google. But it was the VOC’s desire for vast wealth – and their subsequent greed – that saw the company go bankrupt 200 years after it was formed.
The Birth of an Empire
In 1595, the first Dutch trip to the fabled Spice Islands almost ended in catastrophe. Relying on maps stolen by Dutch spies from Chinese and Portuguese traders, Commander Cornelis de Houtman’s fleet of four ships made landfall in Banten, West Java – more by luck than seamanship.
Business didn’t begin well.
After killing Javanese and Portuguese traders in Banten and having a dozen of his own crew murdered off the coast of Java, it seems the VOC’s later karma was set when de Houtman’s men landed on nearby Madura island and murdered a local prince. But despite having lost half of his crew to murder, disease and drowning on his virgin voyage, de Houtman sailed back to Holland with exactly what he came for: a direct route to the East, spices to sell, and the promise of a fortune.
Competition, Consolidation and the Formation of the Dutch East India Company
By 1598 increasing numbers of Dutch fleets had set sail for the East Indies in search of cloves and nutmeg, and they began to fan out across the archipelago from Maluku to Ambon. Spices began to change hands in Amsterdam and Rotterdam at profits of over 400%.
But one-off voyages were high-risk both in terms of lives lost and money gambled. After all, they weren’t the only adventurers after the golden spice: the English and Portuguese were in direct competition with the early Dutch expeditions. In 1602, the Dutch government copied the British trading model of the English East India Company by sponsoring the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or the United East Indies Company – and in 1602 the VOC was born. It was to last less than 200 years.
In 1610, the VOC created the post of ‘Governor General’ in the East Indies and the ‘Council of the Indies’ at home in Holland to oversee its private financial affairs. Back in the cities of Holland, the VOC’s main shareholders – the Heeren XVII, a group of 17 highly influential men – made sure that they held overall control. Meanwhile in Asia, the first VOC headquarters found its feet in Ambon from 1610 to 1619. The Dutch East Indies Company was fast becoming organised – and it was looking for ways to squeeze out the remaining European players.
If the VOC was around today the company would be worth around $7.5 trillion (the number calculated for inflation), which is 10 times more than the present valuation of Apple or Google.
Monopoly and Murder: The VOC Conquers the East Indies
The Dutch VOC, now led by the infamous Jan Pieterszoon Coen, had the East Indies spice trade almost to themselves. For a band of men intent on creating enormous wealth at any cost – and given no political or moral limitations by shareholders back home as to how they made it – the 17th and 18th centuries were carte blanche for the VOC.
Coen’s Dutch East India Company had free reign to sign treaties, mint their own coins, imprison and execute at will, maintain private armies, wage wars, pass laws, build forts and seize land. But the newly-formed VOC had a thorn in its side. In 1604, a second English East India Company fleet had sailed to the spice markets of Ternate, Tidore, Ambon and Banda – and by 1617 had set up trading posts from Kalimantan to Sumatra – in direct competition with the Dutch VOC.
The response was brutal. First, Coen and his men ransacked the West Javanese port-town of Jayakarta in 1619, renamed it Batavia (later Jakarta) and established their new VOC headquarters from its smoking ruins. Meanwhile on the other side of Indonesia, Coen had also quickly recognised the importance of the Banda Islands as the only place in the world that grew the highly precious nutmeg tree – mother of nutmeg and mace. His VOC routed the small group of English settlers who had already begun trade on the tiny island of Run. And after Coen hadsigned a deceptive agreement with local sultans, the VOC secured the rest of the Banda Islands in 1621 – with the execution of over 14,000 local inhabitants – to ensure a ruthless Dutch stranglehold over the globe’s only source of nutmeg.
Two years later, in faraway Ambon – where representatives of the Dutch East India Company had signed a pact with its British competitors – ten members of the English East India Company were tortured and beheaded by the VOC in 1623. Both the Banda Island and Amboyna massacres were pivotal in leading to the quiet withdrawal of the English traders to the relative safety of India and China.
Indonesia’s lucrative Spice World was now in the steel grip of the feared Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie.
How the Dutch Traded Manhattan for Nutmeg
By the time the Dutch East India Company had been formed, nutmeg had already become the Number One spice in Europe. Considered an aphrodisiac and narcotic, it also disguised the stench of rotten meat – and was chosen as The Cure for Europe’s dark years of the bubonic plague. Nutmeg came at a price: European consumers paid 68,000 times its original cost at the world’s only source: the far-away Banda Islands of Indonesia.
But the VOC had a problem over the nutmeg monopoly in the Banda Islands – and had control of all but one island, the tiny island of Run. English traders had beaten them there. The VOC attacked Run in 1616, and after four epic years of resistance by a joint English-Bandanese force, the VOC were finally able to take the last Banda Island. But the English didn’t forget easily – and pressed for their claim to Run through two more Anglo-Dutch wars.
At last it was agreed. The English would give up tiny Run for another insignificant, VOC-held island on the other side of the world – Manhattan, home of Nieuw Amsterdam – now… modern New York.
The Rise of the Dutch East India Company in Indonesia …
Despite their communal greed – or perhaps because of it – the Dutch East India Company was fast becoming the richest and most ruthless private company the world had ever seen. Extortion and violent suppression remained its hallmark.
By 1699, VOC lands claimed stretched from Sumatra and Ternate to Maluku and beyond. Slaves and opium were traded on Bali. Boatloads of nutmeg and cloves, pepper, sugar, tobacco and coffee snaked their way back to the lucrative markets of Europe. Under the protection of some 40 warships and a private army of more than 20,000 soldiers, the VOC’s 150 merchant ships and 50,000 employees were able to pay their shareholders an eye-popping dividend of 40% on their original investment.
Business was booming. It seemed almost too good to be true.
… And its Fall
It was. Although all appeared healthy from the outside, the Dutch East India Company was rotting from within. Despite harsh penalties for private trading, it was commonplace for VOC employees to strike deals behind the Company’s back. Corruption was rife. So was competition: European demand for East Indies sugar had already declined after 1720 as Brazil flooded the market with a cheaper product. And back home in Europe, the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War had all but ruined the Dutch state.
Three strikes finally sealed the fate of the Dutch East India Company forever.
The first, in 1740 when a chaotic VOC massacre of 10,000 Chinese traders in Batavia rattled the confidence of shareholders back home. A second strike came when Frenchman Pierre Poivre (“Peter Pepper”) successfully smuggled nutmeg seedlings to the Caribbean in 1770 where the plants thrived – thus breaking the Dutch monopoly. Strike Three came from Mother Nature herself in the form of a 1778 volcanic eruption that sent a massive tsunami crashing over half the nutmeg groves of Banda.
The end was in sight. Perhaps it was karma. By 1799, the Dutch East India Company had become the victim of its own corruption – and went spectacularly bankrupt. Its assets and debts fell to the crown of Holland who assumed colonial power in the newly-named ‘Dutch East Indies’. But not before the VOC had sent over half a million men on more than 4,750 voyages to net more than 2.5 million tons of Asian goods in just 197 years.
Brutal or not, the Dutch East India Company had been a roaring financial success. And as ruthless as they were, de Houtman and his successors had also unwittingly carved out what was later to become the Republic of Indonesia.
The stamp of the VOC had made its mark.
Impacts of the VOC on Today’s Indonesia
The VOC and their Dutch East Indies colonial successors weren’t afraid of sailing from one side of the vast Malay archipelago to the other – and in doing so laid down the political boundaries of modern Indonesia. From Banda Aceh in the west to Kalimantan and Sulawesi in the north, to faraway Ambon and Papua in the east along Java’s backbone in the centre, the early traders covered a lot of sea miles.
One of the longest-standing legacies of the VOC in Indonesia is the now-teeming, hectic capital city of Jakarta – home to some 16 million people. An insignificant Javanese port-town until the early Dutch traders arrived, the original Jayakarta was burned to the ground by Coen and Company in 1619 before being re-built as Batavia – after the Batavieren, or mythical Dutch ancestors of legend. Which is why born-and-bred inhabitants of Jakarta now call themselves Orang Betawi.
The VOC headquarters in Batavia was originally a walled city complete with fortress, churches, tree-lined streets and canals. Jakarta’s canals – more suited to cool western Europe than the sultry, humid tropics – still survive, but continue to be a source of annual flooding and disease.
The introduction of cash-crops such as coffee, sugar and tobacco – despite using precious land otherwise needed to grow food – continues to benefit modern Indonesia. Who hasn’t enjoyed a smoke over a cup of sweet Java recently?
The VOC-engineered ‘race pyramid’ – with the Dutch at the top, Javanese nobility just below, Chinese traders in the middle and the indigenous Malays at the bottom – was the perfect policy of racial ‘Divide and Rule’ to keep trade running smoothly. Strict racial segregation also kept a successive Dutch colonial government in power for another 150 years until disillusioned Indonesian nationalists ousted the colonialists in 1948.
While Portuguese traders brought Catholicism with them in their sea-chests, the VOC was largely Protestant – which is why two of Indonesia’s six official religions are now Katolik (‘Catholic’), and Kristen (‘Protestant’). Protestants make up 6,9% of Indonesia’s population; Catholics just 2,9%.
Traces of the Dutch East India Company in Modern Indonesia
If you’re in North Jakarta, take a wander around Kota Tua, or the Old Town. Check out the VOC cannons in the square next to Café Batavia. Many old Dutch buildings are now in disrepair; but the nearby teeming port of Sunda Kelapa with its huge Makassar schooners is an impressive sight.
Hire a guide for a tour around Kota Tua’s Fatahillah Square for a dive into VOC and Dutch East Indies history.
Visit the VOC’s original shipyard and trade offices in Jakarta’s Kota district – and its nearby Maritime Museum. But be prepared for a surprise. The trendy mall and café next door are still called ‘VOC’ – but it now stands for ‘Very Old Café’…
Further afield is Ambon’s Fort Nieuw Victoria – a Portuguese fort commandeered by the VOC – which was to become the Company’s first headquarters in the East Indies. The original fort was heavily damaged by an earthquake in 1754, and later rebuilt as Fort Nieuw Victoria. It is now closed to the public and used as a modern-day military garrison by the Indonesian army.
Also in Ambon is Fort Amsterdam – which started life as a Portuguese trade lodge before being expanded and converted into a VOC prison, an ammunition magazine and a small fort. Situated on the pretty west coast of Ambon in Hila Town, Fort Amsterdam has recently been restored and is open to the public.
Perhaps the largest and best-preserved VOC fort is Fort Belgica on Bandaneira Island in Maluku’s Banda Islands. Dripping in spice history, Fort Belgica was built in 1611 and extensively redesigned in 1667. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Despite boasting 50 cannons and a garrison of 400 men, Fort Belgica surrendered to the British in 1796 without a shot being fired. If you want to see a large European fort in the middle of the tropics, this is it.
Named after the Dutch Royal Family’s ‘House of Orange’, Fort Oranye in North Maluku’s Ternate City was built in 1607 on the remains of a Malay fort. Fort Oranye is in good condition despite numerous earthquakes – and although parts are now used by the Indonesian military and police, it welcomes visitors.
Another VOC outpost built in 1610 on the foundations of an earlier Portuguese fort in Ternate is Fort Kalamata. Guarding the valuable clove trade from pirates and competitors, it can be found 1 km south of Bastiong, and is open to the public.
A more accessible legacy of the Dutch East India Company is Fort Vredeburg in Java’s Yogyakarta – now a museum celebrating Indonesian independence from the Dutch. Originally constructed in 1760 and named Fort Rustenburg (“Resting Place”), it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1867 and rebuilt by Dutch East Indies colonialists – who renamed it Fort Vredeburg, or “Peace Fort”. It can be found next to the Sultan’s Palace.
Dutch Loanwords in Modern Bahasa Indonesia
asbak – asbak (ashtray)
diskusi – discussie (discussion)
gaji – gage (wage)
handuk – handdoek (towel)
helm – helm (helmet)
kantor – kantoor (office)
komandan – commandant (commander)
kopor – koffer (suitcase)
korupsi – corruptie (corruption)
polisi – politie (police)
prinsip – principe (principle)
resiko – risico (risk)
rok – rok (skirt)
rokok – roken (cigarette)
serius – serieus (serious)
traktir – trakteer (treat)
wortel – wortel (carrot)
Soft, succulent, spiky and stinky, Durian fruit is worshipped by some and outlawed by others. Known to its fans as the “King of Fruits”, it’s rich in Vitamin B and C and a sworn enemy of free radicals. Durian’s creamy flesh is packed with minerals, keeps you young, helps control your heart rate and even sends you off to sleep. But not everyone’s convinced…
Like any good outlaw, durian is tough on the outside with a heart of gold. At least, that’s how the fruit’s devotees describe it. Its critics don’t pull any punches when it comes to the rotten smell: “Ungodly”. “Like a three-week-old dead cow in custard.” And from an international food critic: “Its odour is best described as pig sh*t, turpentine and onions garnished with a dirty gym sock.”
It’s fair to say that the humble durian has a bad rap – bad enough to have earned itself Banned Fruit status on Singapore’s subway, Thailand’s trains, Asia’s airlines and every hotel from Medan to Kupang.
How Does a Durian Taste?
“On the third bite,” says one hater, “it was as though I had just eaten a diseased, parasite-infested animal with a bad case of rabies. I prayed I wouldn’t be sick because I really didn’t want to taste it again on the way up.” To a durian lover: “The taste is light melon with a creamy, almost eggy texture – a bit pineappley, with a tome of yogurt and buttermilk sourness.” Getting better. So what does the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace say about the durian’s flavour?
“A rich custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but there are occasional wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes. Then there is a rich glutinous smoothness in the pulp which nothing else possesses, but which adds to its delicacy.”
The World of Durian
OK, so it’s edible. And it has its lovers. Despite the fruit’s aggressive appearance – up to 30cms long, two or three kilos in weight, football-sized with thorns sharp enough to slice your skin – durian is really just a big softy at heart. Cut one open and you’ll find the soft, creamy-yellow or red flesh surrounding a large seed – the colour of the pulp depending on the species.
Durian’s Extended Asian Family
There are 30 recognised tree species – the scientific name for a durian plant is ‘Durio’ – and nine of these produce edible fruit. While the durian tree isn’t native to Thailand, most of the world’s durian exports come from there – other Southeast Asian countries who grow their own are Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and the southern Philippines. In Indonesia, the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan are the main durian-growing regions – hardly surprising, as the word ‘durian’ stems from the Malay-Indonesian word duri, meaning ‘thorn’.
Love them or loathe them, you’re never too far from a durian tree in Indonesia – Bali and Java also cultivate their own – while you’ll only find the unique red durian in East Java’s Banyuwangi province. Indonesian lovers of this divisive fruit are spoilt with a double durian-growing season: the first from October to February, and the bonus in Sumatra from June to September. Lucky them.
Durian trees are tall – up to 50 metres – and grow buttery-smelling, feathery flowers that tempt bats and honeybees to pollinate them. But it’s not just humans and bats that can smell a durian tree a mile off. The pungent fruit pulls in hungry Sumatran elephants, wild rainforest pigs, orangutans and even carnivorous tigers from up to a kilometre away – ensuring that the trees’ seeds are spread far and wide, and guaranteeing the durian’s questionable place in evolution.
And that, in a nutshell, is why durians smell so bad.
Durian is high in tryptophan, an amino acid converted by the body into serotonin – which in turn promotes a feeling of happiness and relaxation.
What’s the Difference Between Jackfruit and Durian?
Like durian, jackfruit also shares an abundance of minerals and vitamins. And like durian, it’s pretty smelly too. They both have greeny-brown outer shells. But that’s where the similarities end. Your average jackfruit can dwarf a durian: whereas a large durian might reach 3kg, a big jackfruit can tip the scales at 30kg. Jackfruits don’t have thorns or spikes, either – they’re knobbly with bumps.
And while durian flesh is creamy, jackfruit pulp is more rubbery and stringy – more soft bubble-gum than custard slurp. Jackfruit taste? According to one lover, it’s “… indescribable. A sweet, almondine, onion-sherry chocolate mousse with hints of garlic and farts”. Hm. So not that different, then. And just as you’ll see a ‘No Durian’ sign in Denpasar’s airport, you’ll also see a ‘No Jackfruit’ sign next to it. They’re both on the banned-from-flying list.
Nutritional Facts About Durian
But if carnivorous tigers love them, surely they can’t be that bad for your health? Get over the stench, and they’re a wonder food. Iron, potassium, Vitamin C, riboflavin, folic acid, thiamine, calcium, copper, zinc, phosphorous, Vitamins B6 and E, magnesium, sodium, protein, fibre, phytonutrients, water and beneficial dietary fats. That isn’t bad for a big fruit.
With a nutritional list as impressive as this, it’s no surprise that durians are very, very good for your health.
Feeling old? A portion of durian a day can help turn back the clock. Because of the fruit’s high levels of vitamins and their organic chemical make-up, durians have a high level of antioxidants that actively reduce the amount of free radicals in your body. This means less age-related tooth-loosening, less hair loss, less wrinkles – and less arthritis, heart disease, macular degeneration and fewer age spots. Who said the fountain of youth was a myth?
If you find it hard to sleep, durian’s the cure. This super-fruit is high in tryptophan, an amino acid converted by the body into serotonin – which in turn promotes a feeling of happiness and relaxation. The serotonin is then converted into melatonin, which makes the body feel tired. No need to count sheep after a portion of Big D.
The Indonesian people have a saying: “Durian jatuh, sarung naik”. Which roughly translates as: “When a durian falls, up comes the sarong.” The jury’s out on whether durian makes you a tiger in the bedroom – but it has been scientifically proven to reduce the chances of infertility in men and women. Which can’t be a bad thing.
Prevention is better than cure. If you want to cut your prospects of getting cancer, durian is half the battle. Crammed with antioxidants, these are the sworn enemy of free radicals that can destroy the DNA of normal cells – which can then become cancerous. If you already have cancer, the phytonutrients in durian will battle cancerous cells – as well as giving your depleted immune system a turbo-boost.
Anaemia is a thing of the past on a durian diet. High levels of folic acid, iron and copper will bring your red blood cell count swinging back into the positive.
Durian keeps you regular. Its high levels of dietary fibre stimulates peristaltic motion and the secretion of gastric and digestive juices, all of which help to reduce bloating, constipation, heartburn and cramps. And surprisingly for a fruit, eating durian also lowers the frequency of diarrhoea – as its dietary fibre is of the insoluble, not the soluble, type.
Say goodbye to high blood pressure, as durian fruit is an excellent source of potassium. With plenty of potassium in your bloodstream, your blood vessels will relax – not only reducing the stress on your cardiovascular system, but also helping to reduce your chances of a heart attack, a stroke or atherosclerosis. And with plenty of blood pumping through your brain, you’re lowering your chances of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease too. They say a Sumatran elephant never forgets…
The Downside of Durians
A word of warning. Although a Sumatran tiger might not be counting the calories, you might want to get your calculator out if you’re on a diet. An average durian contains anywhere from 885 calories to 1,500 calories – or up to 75 percent of an adult’s daily recommended 2,000 calories. Durian fruit is also very high in carbohydrates. If you’re watching your waistline, a durian dinner is probably not for you.
And don’t drink alcohol with them – you’ll turn into a hot-air balloon.
Drinking beer while eating durian can kill you. Although they’re not a good mix – you may end up with big wind and indigestion – science says that you will most probably wake up the next day. But the combination will test your liver as it battles to break down large amounts of fats and sugar in the durian and the alcohol. Better go teetotal during a durian feast.
Durian is loaded with cholesterol. No, it isn’t. In fact durian fruit has zero cholesterol. You might be thinking of red meat or dairy products which contain saturated fats. Durian is full of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats that actually help lower your cholesterol…
Eating the King of Fruits will make you a King in the Bedroom. Hm. It’s true that durian may cause your body temperature to rise – which might help – but durian is not technically an aphrodisiac. However, eating it does increase stamina and sperm motility – which might explain this happy old housewife’s tale.
Durian must be eaten with mangosteen to reduce its ‘heatiness’. Ancient Chinese wisdom says so, but science isn’t so sure. Both are more likely to have been eaten together out of habit as the two fruits are harvested at around the same time.
How and Where to Buy Durian
So you’ve decided that durians’ enormous health benefits outweigh the stink. How do you buy one?
Indonesia is the home of durians, and you’re never far away from one. If you’re in a big city like Jakarta or Surabaya – or in a tourist centre like Bali – many of the larger supermarkets will stock them. The disadvantage is not being able to chat with the person who is selling it to you. If you’re in Europe, Australia or the States, you might be able to track down some frozen durian – not ideal, but better than nothing. Rule Number One: fly to Indonesia, and take a walk around your local morning market.
What’s the Price of a Durian?
If you’re wondering about durian prices in Indonesia… well, it depends on the season, the size and how far from a durian plantation you are. Count on a medium-sized durian weighing about 1,5kg to 2kg to cost you in the region of Rp.50,000 – about USD3.70.
How to Choose a Ripe Durian
It depends on your taste. If you’re a Thai, you’ll eat them slightly under-ripe. But your average Indonesian likes a durian so ripe that it will have developed an alcoholic bite. For something in between, try this. Walk along to your local market, make sure you’re smelling a durian and not a jackfruit, and put your nose close to the skin. If it has no smell at all, chances are it isn’t ripe. If the odour is already strong, it’s probably over-ripe. A durian at its peak should have a low-level, slightly earthy, slightly sulphurous smell with a hint of freshly-cut grass and scrambled eggs.
If you don’t fancy the sniff-test, there’s another way. Have a chat with your friendly fruit-seller. Durians fall off the tree when they’re ripe – which explains why so many people are injured or killed under durian trees every year. If your durian fell within the last day, chances are that it’s perfect. If it has been sitting around in the fruit stall for several days, it isn’t.
If you only speak Beginner’s Indonesian, there is a third way. Wiggle the stem. If it’s loose, it’s close to ripe. If the stem has already broken off or comes off in your hand, it’s over-ripe. A durian expert will dig a fingernail into the stem – it should be grass-green. If the stem is dark brown and shrivelled, your durian may be days old – and has probably been ripening under a tarpaulin.
Some say the easiest way is to pick up a durian and give it a shake. If the seed rattles around like a maraca, it’s very over-ripe. If there is no rattle, the flesh will be hard – which is how some people like it. If all else fails, find a spot between the sharp thorns, and press down into the skin with your thumb. If it gives a bit, it’s ready. If it’s as hard as a rock, it isn’t.
Or just try the human touch. Smile at your friendly durian seller and say: “Saya cari (’cha-ree’) durian yang sudah (‘soo-dah’) matang. Tolong bisa (‘bee-sah’) pilih (‘pee-lee’) yang bagus untuk saya?” Which means: “I’m looking for a ripe durian. Please could you pick a nice one for me?” And the lovely lady behind the counter will present you with a beauty.
How to Open and Eat a Durian
If you’re a newbie, the simplest thing in Indonesia is to find your local durian seller and ask them to open one up in front of you. Watch and learn. After several expert chops and thumps, they’ll discard the skin and the seed and present you with a plastic bag full of durian flesh. Just make sure you don’t bring it back on the bus or in someone else’s car. It may be wise to bring an airtight container with you.
Once you’ve watched an expert, eaten your first durian and find yourself coming back for more, you’re probably a durian addict. Pick your next durian yourself and bring it home. This could get messy, so place it on plenty of newspaper – possibly outside.
There are two methods: the knife or the stamp. If you’re handy with a sharp knife, chop off the stem, find a natural seam in your durian and carefully cut down and away from the stem. (Some people wear a baseball mitt on their other hand so they don’t spike themselves.) Bury your fingers under the thick husk – being careful of the sharp thorns – and slowly prise apart. You should have two halves now. Scoop out the pulp from one of the sections and you’re good to go.
A safer way is to put on some old, thick-soled shoes – and while you’re holding onto something for balance, stand increasingly hard on the durian until it naturally breaks along its seams. Prise the durian apart with your fingers, and eat.
How do you eat a durian? The best way is to get sticky with your fingers…
Some Favourite Durian Recipes
You’ve got over the smell. You’ve picked and opened your first fresh durian. And you’ve been brave enough to taste it. So what’s next?
You’ll be pleased to know that Indonesians have been perfecting ways to enjoy the King of Fruits for the past couple of thousand years – and one of the most popular durian recipes is called Duri Durian – also known as Makassar Durian Tarts. A toffee-like delicacy from Sulawesi, Duri Durian is popular during the Muslim festivals of Idul Fitri and Idul Adha.
Pooed by civet cats for the pickiest of people, kopi luwak is more expensive than silver. Discovered by penniless farmers and enjoyed by city bankers, kopi luwak may beat a ‘capoocino’ – but is it as pure and as ethical as we’d like to believe? Read on for the story of the costliest coffee on earth.
You’ve tried them all: Arabica and Robusta, espressos, cappuccinos, café lattes and cafe zorros. But when was the last time you drank a coffee at Starbucks that has passed through the guts of a cat? Indonesian kopi luwak – or civet coffee – is exactly that.
Known as ‘fox-dung coffee’ in Vietnam (and ‘cat-poop coffee’ by its critics), kopi luwak may be the most expensive cup of coffee in the world – but its origins couldn’t be more humble.
The Origins of Luwak Coffee and the Palm Civet Cat
Far away in the tropical rainforests of Indonesia 200 hundred years ago, farmers in Java and Sumatra were busy planting a crop that they had never seen before: coffee. And while their Dutch colonial masters sipped it over breakfast and sold it by the ton to a growing European audience, the farmers themselves were forbidden to drink it. Until a little jungle cat came along.
Indonesia’s palm civet cat – the luwak – is a curious animal. Nocturnal, shy and looking like a cross between a mongoose and a weasel, it is found in the tropical jungles of Asia. And like the Dutch plantation owners, it also developed a taste for coffee.
Picking the ripest coffee cherries on their nightly rounds, the little luwaks would digest the fruit’s flesh – but the hard seeds, or beans, would pass undisturbed in their droppings. Collected, washed, roasted and ground by the plantation farmers, word quickly spread about the new wonder drink – its prized aroma and smooth, earthy flavour soon becoming a firm favourite of the Dutch colonialists.
Coffee Luwak Hits the West
Fast-forward two hundred years, and the secret was out. Oprah Winfrey drank a cup on prime-time TV; so did Jack Nicholson’s character in the 2007 Hollywood film ‘The Bucket List’. When the Guardian newspaper published a review about it in 2008, kopi luwak was being sold in high-class London coffee houses for £50 ($75) a cup. Nowadays, a kilo of authentic, ethically-produced luwak coffee can cost you upwards of $800 – about the same price as a kilo of Colombian cocaine paste.
So How Does it Taste?
If you’re paying nearly a hundred dollars for a pick-me-up, a cup of cat-poo coffee had better match the price tag. One kopi luwak virgin writes: ‘On first taste it’s pretty fantastic with all of the higher notes you tend to get with a well-roasted bespoke coffee… the defining characteristic is a lovely, long, subtly nutty aftertaste…’
Not bad then. Another food expert agrees: ‘A small sip… reveals an earthy profundity, an uncanny blend of Jamaican mountain and Indonesian jungle. As an exotic holiday for your tongue, the price tag is almost reasonable…’
So apart from its high price-tag, it’s OK then?
Not quite. One reason for its exorbitant cost was the claim that only 500kg of the beans were collected annually – a claim that is totally untrue. But when word spread among Indonesian farmers that they could sell a kilo of the precious poop for $130, everybody wanted in on the game. Jungle civets were rounded up by hunters in Bali, Java, Sumatra and Sulawesi, and sold on to battery farms.
The shy, nocturnal luwaks – far from their natural jungle habitats – suddenly found themselves locked in tiny cages and force-fed inferior coffee beans until they died or succumbed to disease. For a solitary animal used to 17 sq km of territory and feeding on a varied diet of meat and vegetables, it was a recipe for disaster.
The coffee luwak trade soon expanded to Vietnam, China and the Philippines, and fake beans quickly flooded the market.
It wasn’t long before journalists and animal welfare activists began to voice their complaints about the cruelty that this suddenly fashionable and highly-profitable industry had created. Kopi luwak – and the jungle civets that helped to produce it – had become victims of their own success.
But if you think you’ll never be able to sample a cup of the most expensive coffee on earth, you may just be in with a chance. The backlash against ruthless civet farms and a push for sustainable, ethically-produced kopi luwak has begun.
Thanks to public campaigns by well-known animal welfare organisations such as PETA, large UK kopi luwak retailers like Harrods and Selfridges were encouraged to investigate their supply chains. They consequently stopped selling civet coffee until they could guarantee that it was sourced from the wild.
As a result of continued pressure, UTZ Certified – a programme for sustainable farming – no longer certifies producers that use battery-farmed palm civets. Which means that before you buy any kopi luwak online or in a coffee shop, make sure that it has the UTZ Certified stamp. Even better if it is also certified by World Animal Protection and the Rainforest Alliance.
Claims and Facts About Luwak Coffee
Claim: “Only about 500 kilos of luwak coffee are harvested each year.”
Fact: Over 50 tons of civet coffee are produced by Indonesia, China, Vietnam and the Philippines every year.
Claim: “Our palm civets are well-looked after.”
Fact: If they are living in their natural habitats, wild civets don’t need looking after.
Claim: “It isn’t illegal in Indonesia to keep civets in cages.”
Fact: That’s correct. But tightly-controlled government quotas regarding the trapping of civets in the wild are largely ignored by hunters and plantation owners.
Claim: “Our civet coffee is certified and ethically sourced.”
Fact: Many luwak coffee producers certify their own plantations as ethically sound. Only luwak coffee that carries the UTZ Certified stamp has been verified as non-battery-farmed and cruelty-free.
Where Can I Buy Ethically-Farmed Kopi Luwak?
It’s harder than it seems. Your best bet for wild-foraged luwak coffee may be online, as larger non-Indonesian retailers have more of a reputation to lose when buying from an unethical source.
Wild Gayo Luwak – established in 2015 – is adamant that all of its ‘doree’ kopi luwak coffee beans are collected from free-range palm civets, and that this North Sumatran plantation operates within World Animal Protection guidelines. Coffee from the same plantation is sold through Sea Island Coffee from London at £18, or $28, for 50 grams.
The US KopiLuwakDirect sells wild civet coffee too, claiming that “The Luwaks are free to choose for themselves which beans they consume, and to eat their full varied natural diet, which enriches the flavour of our delicious coffee.” – but offers no certification from WAP, UTZ or the Rainforest Alliance.
If you’re looking to buy ethical luwak coffee on Bali, you may not have much luck buying at source. According to Project Luwak Singapore, “… there are no UTZ Certified coffee plantations” on the resort island. There are, however, plenty of guided tours available to show you around Bali’s coffee luwak plantations – and you’ll have lots of opportunity to see first-hand how caged palm civets produce the coffee. Beware the overpriced, on-site souvenir shops.
Where to buy kopi luwak if you’re already in Indonesia? Your best bet is to look around some of the bigger supermarkets like Carrefour, Bintang and Delta Dewata in the tourist destinations or major cities – and check for those all-important stamps of certification. But don’t be shocked at the price.
One More Thing – Fake Kopi Luwak…
A Japanese professor has finally invented a test that can tell if your luwak coffee beans have in fact passed through the guts of a palm civet cat – but the test can’t tell if that luwak is wild, or is living in a cage. And it’s difficult to send every pack of kopi luwak to Japan for testing before you buy. A tip: sniff your beans. If they smell leafy, you’re in with a chance. If they smell like rice, you’ve been conned. And pay attention to their colour: real kopi luwak beans are a yellowish-green rather than the more normal, dark chocolate colour.
Some retailers boast of being able to sell luwak coffee wholesale. This should set some alarm bells ringing. Firstly, wild civets simply can’t produce enough kopi luwak to fill a container. And secondly, there’s a good chance that your super-coffee has been mixed with regular Arabica straight from the tree. Beware of prices that look too good to be true. Let’s face it: real, ethically-sourced luwak coffee doesn’t come cheap…
Tips for Brewing a Perfect Cup of Kopi Luwak Coffee
So you’ve bought your first, super-expensive packet of certified luwak coffee, and you can’t wait to try it. But take a few tips from the experts first.
Go for whole beans, and grind them yourself to ensure the freshest coffee. But only grind as much as you need… or it’ll lose its flavour.
For a coffee as expensive as this, don’t risk ruining it with tap water. Treat yourself to a bottle of mineral water instead.
Stay away from mixing kopi luwak with milk or cream – it’ll interfere with the coffee’s subtle taste.
If you’re using an espresso machine, grind the beans extra fine to produce a thick, concentrated cup.
The most common method is to use a percolator, or ‘drip coffee maker’. Medium-grind your coffee beans. Make sure you get the water-to-coffee ratio right: 1-2 tablespoons of coffee per 6 fluid ounces of water is a good starting point.
If you’re a traditionalist and have 15 minutes to spare, you may want to try this. Take a saucepan, and add a generous teaspoon of finely-ground coffee for each cup you want to make – plus one for the pot. For each cup of coffee you’re making, add 1 ½ cups of cold water to the saucepan and heat on a medium-high heat. Stir frequently. As soon as the coffee comes to the boil, remove from the heat, stir and allow the coffee grounds to settle for 1-2 minutes. Pour carefully, leaving the grounds behind. Enjoy.
From secret coffee-drinking sessions in the jungle to the most expensive brew on the planet: kopi luwak is a curious case. Coffee connoisseurs rave about it; animal rights activists wish it had never been discovered. But find that rarest of creatures – the ethically-certified bag of cat-poo coffee – and you may find that your mornings will never be the same again.