SINGAPORE — 'Tis the season for durians and you would have felt their conspicuous, declarative presence in our neighbourhoods by now. But in recent days, the thorny treasures from Malaysia are found in abundance not just at the usual places.
At a Toa Payoh pasar malam and two malls, you can find the prickly fruit in Play United's bright pink claw machines jousting for the attention of anyone who want the thrill of clawing something other than plushies. The firm's spokesman Alice Goh told The Straits Times that her durian-loving team is able to introduce this concept thanks to more affordable durian prices.
Outside The One Salon at Bedok Central, piles of durians line the corridor under a banner that screams: Buy fruit get free haircut. The hair salon's boss Steven Qin told ST that he is giving away haircut vouchers to durian buyers who spend at least $20 at his makeshift stall. He hopes the promo will attract new customers to both his stall and salon.
Eat-all-you-can durian buffets are also catching on. Giant Hypermarket held its first durian buffet at its Tampines outlet's carpark last week and attracted a strong showing. Its spokesman told ST it plans to offer the one-hour buffet again. Other durian stores like Zeng Zu Fu and Lexus Durian King are also offering free-flow durian feast this season.
The pungent delicacy wouldn't have been here, there and everywhere if not for the bountiful supply from Malaysia's farms this season.
The Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Fruit Farmers' Association (KLSFFA) told ST Malaysia now exports more than 100,000kg of fresh durians to Singapore a day.
The huge supply has sent prices down by 10 to 20 per cent compared to the last season, according to six stall owners who spoke to ST.
In the not-so-distant past, residents here used to pay hundreds of dollars a durian. Just last June, the AAA grade musang king cost some $40 a kg while the no-frills version cost around $25 a kg.
By last December, the prices had fallen by more than 30 per cent with the supply glut.
Now, the B and C grade musang king variety retails at $10 or less a kg at some heartland stalls. One stall is even offering a flew-flow musang king buffet at $38.80 an hour.
Singapore residents also tend to find durians more affordable this season with the favourable exchange rate, the KLSFFA spokesman said. Ringgit hit a fresh low of 3.43 against Singdollar in the last two days, according to Bloomberg data.
Mr Torrence Chua, who runs Top Durian Station in Bukit Batok, told ST he is happy for his customers, who get to enjoy good-quality durians at lower prices.
But he added that sellers like him risk making losses when they have to keep slashing prices to clear stock.
"When sales are slower on weekdays, we may not be able to sell all our stock. Around 20 to 30 per cent of them would be spoiled," the 30-year-old said.
The abundant supply this season is due to a number of factors.
Mr Alvin Teoh, who owns Durian 36, said the combination of optimal temperature, sufficient rainfall and strong sunlight has created the ideal environment for durian trees to flourish.
The recent heat spell also causes more durians to ripen simultaneously, which compels growers to act fast to deliver them here.
Besides the weather condition, the KLSFFA spokesman pointed out that the increase in supply is to be expected as there are now more farms with more fruit-bearing trees, after an influx of investment in Malaysia's durian cultivation sector around seven years ago.
Many investors, including those from Singapore, were drawn to the prospect of handsome returns as Malaysia was then actively knocking on the door of the massive Chinese market, which had a huge and growing appetite for the king of fruits.
"From around 2016 onwards, anyone hoping to get rich wanted to plant durians," said Mr Chua of Top Durian Station, adding that some players even cleared oil palm and rubber plantations in order to plant "gold".
"The oversupply that we are seeing now is partly a result of overplanting at that time," he added.
In a typical year, there are two durian seasons, with the mid-year season ending in August. But many sellers predict a longer season that may last till September or October this year.
Mr Edwyn Chiang, secretary-general of Malaysia International Durian Industry Development Association (Midada) said better farming techniques have contributed to the longer season.
KLSFFA's spokesman also said durian farmers are getting more knowledgable about farm management, such as the use of organic fertilizers.
"They also invested in piping and irrigation, so their trees are getting more optimal levels of water to grow higher-quality fruits," the spokesman added.
Mr Chiang also pointed out that China is not importing as many durians as expected.
Malaysia is facing stiffer competition from its South-east Asian neighbours.
Thailand, which dominates the Chinese market traditionally, remains a strong contender. Vietnam and The Philippines have also secured permits to export fresh durians to China lately.
China's homegrown durians in the Hainan island are also expected to hit the market this month, according to the South China Morning Post.
While the development may irk profit-conscious investors, durian fans from both sides of the causeway have reasons to cheer.
"Durian is likely to remain affordable", Mr Chua believes, and this means his customers need not worry about durians turning into a rich man's delicacy.
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