During 1984 we decided to take a working holiday in a place where we could eat plenty of rare fruits: a place which had not previously been explored by botanists with fruit uppermost in their minds. Having grown rare fruit trees for years without eating the fruit, we wanted to see if the extravagant claims others had made for them were really true. Our reading and correspondence pointed us towards the island of Borneo, the center of the botanical zone of Malesia. Dr. Bobby Tee of Kota Kinabalu and Prof. A.J.G.H. Kostermans of Bogor, Java informed us about the relatives of the durian, and we became especially interested in them.
Arriving in Sabah, Malaysia in September, 1984, we discovered there was almost no fruit, due to the drought of 1982-3 caused by the Pacific Ocean 'El Niño' current. Extensive logging has reduced the virgin forests of Sabah by 95%, so mainly cultivated fruits are present. Of these, we enjoyed most the Meritam, known in Peninsular Malaysia as Pulasan, (which comes in green, yellow, and red-purple), the Durian, and Langsat. Many Mangosteens, we found, were too sour for our taste, but a sweet one is delicious. Chempedak made us forget entirely about Jakfruit because it was sweeter and richer in flavour, and good cooked as well.
Later we travelled on to Sarawak where a good season revealed an astounding diversity of edible fruits. There are 2500 known species of tree in Sarawak, all producing some kind of fruit. Animals and birds, of course, eat many of these, even preferring the sour or astringent types. About 150 species produce fruits with thick, edible (by humans) flesh, and of these we collected 60 species.
Travel in Sarawak is chiefly by boat - powerful express launches on the main rivers, longboats (canoelike wooden boats driven by outboards) on the smaller rivers. By stages we travelled up the larger and then smaller rivers to the longhouses (1000-foot-long buildings housing 40 to 100 families) where we met the Iban people, who informed us about and led us to the fruits growing locally.
Most of the best fruits of Sarawak are in the families of the Durian, the Rambutan, and the Breadfruit, as well as several lesser-known families. The "wild" of "forest" Durians are excellent fruits, and may become quite popular with Australians because some are more "approachable" than the cultivated Durian. The Tutong is sweeter, the Isu and Graveolens have little smell, Graveolens is savoury, and Isu Ramin, Lai, and Graveolens all have firmer flesh than the Durian. Lai is a faster tree to grow, and all the "wild" Durians have fewer "bad trees" than the cultivated Durian - i.e. trees producing fruits with bitter or no flavour, or overly soft or fibrous.
In the Artocarpus, or Breadfruit, family, we have mentioned the Chempedak, which comes in at least four varieties: large, small sweet, orange-fleshed and green-fleshed. The Pedalai is similar to the Tarap (or Marang), but superior, and amongst other good Artocarpus are Entawa, Pudau, Pingan, and Tekalong.
In the Rambutan family are at least 30 edible fruits, but outstanding among those we tried were the "Longans" - Isau and Kakus, and Lait and Sibau, two small but good fruits.
The best Bornean vine fruits, Kubal, share some characteristics of the passionfruit: they are forest vines producing masses of acid or sweet-acid medium-sized fruits coloured a beautiful dull orange.
The two best savoury fruits from Sarawak, Engkala and Dabai, are sure to find a place in the Australian diet. As yet it is not known during what month they will fruit in Queensland, and in consequence whether they will compete with avocados, but if they are summer fruits, which seems likely, they will be popular with those who eat avocados. Dabai resembles the olive and could probably be processed in a like manner, although this is not necessary. Dabai is undergoing trials by the Dept. of Agriculture in Kuching to examine its potential as a major commercial crop for Sarawak.
The trees our partners propagated from the seeds we sent back are growing vigorously, and this wet season will see many new plantings of these rare fruits in North Queensland, the Northern Territory, and other parts of Australia.
In Borneo these fruits have been collected from the wild and cultivated for centuries, but there have been few commercial plantings to date due to the low population of that island. Recent interest in selecting good varieties is being spearheaded by the Agriculture Department, particularly by Mr. A. Lamb of Sabah and Mr. Voon Boon Hoe of Kuching, who were kind enough to assist and guide us in our research and fruit selection. Like us, they feel there is great commercial potential in many of these new fruits.
EXTRACT FROM A TRAVEL JOURNAL
(By Lauren Gartrell)
While travelling in Borneo I kept a journal of impressions and daily events, and felt some of the "fruit stories" would interest members. This is one such story:
Tenom, Sabah, Sept. 12th, 1984: Today we toured some local kampungs (villages) where we met with some success in our search for fruiting durian trees. With our Chinese friend William as guide and interpreter we set off on the south road through Tenom. At Mile 19 on the road to Tomani we stopped at a cocoa farm where there were several durian trees towering over the plantation. One of these, a Durio graveolens tree, had twenty or so ripe orange-yellow fruits visible in its upper branches. As we gazed longingly at these attractive-looking fruits, we were told that this species didn't drop its fruit as is usual with durians, but ripened and split on the tree. William, our friendly P.R. man, was deep in conversation with the owner - we heard "fruit" and "Australia" mentioned often.
A hoard of young boys were gathering around as we admired the ripe durians through field glasses and took photographs. William informed us that they would attempt to get some fruit for us, and a long bamboo pole with a sharpened hook was produced. A young lad took the pole and went up a small tree growing beside the durian tree. He hooked his pole onto the first fork of the durian tree at forty feet above the ground. He grabbed hold of the two-foot-thick trunk, and with feet flat against the sides, quickly monkeyed up to the fork. Pulling up the pole, he untied a join in the middle, and climbed to the top with the half-length pole. As he knocked off each fruit there would be a hail from above and much whooping amongst the onlookers as the fruit came thumping to the ground, sometimes bouncing off the cocoa trees on the way down. We quickly scattered as one came close, and indeed I had moved just in time. One of these hard spiny fruits could knock you out with a direct hit.
We ate on the spot the fruits that split on impact and found the flesh thick, milk-flavoured, and delicious, very attractive too with their bright red flesh. The owner refused payment for the fourteen fruits we took with us, though we gave the climber a donation and our heartily felt thanks. They showed us around their other trees; we saw green and purple Meritams (the latter with a crop of young fruit), and a flowering Baccaurea species, probably Tampoi, which they said has very sweet fruits. The flowers are borne in abundant long racemes on the lower trunk of this small tree. We saw a durian tree they had recently cut for its timber, as it was dying anyway, and the wood was hard, fine-grained, and a beautiful orange-red colour. They all waved us off smiling broadly, and we were humbly in awe of this most recent example of the generosity and friendly interest shown us by the people of Malaysia.
DATE: January 1986
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