DON GONYEA, HOST:
They're prickly, they're pricey and they're pungent. Southeast Asia's durian is unlike any other fruit, and China loves them. China's long gotten most of its durians from Thailand. But now Malaysia is ready to jump into that market. From Kuala Lumpur, Michael Sullivan reports
MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: You will never forget your first whiff of a durian. Malaysian celebrity chef Zam remembers foreign friends getting theirs when they visited him in Kuala Lumpur.
ZAMZANI ABDUL WAHAB: They almost died, and I had to call an ambulance on them (laughter).
SULLIVAN: It's no joke. Last month, more than 500 people were evacuated from a library in Australia after a gas leak scare that turned out to be - yep, a rotting durian left in a trash bin.
WAHAB: Julia Child once said it smells like dead babies mixed with strawberries mixed with Camembert (laughter).
SULLIVAN: Here in Southeast Asia, no durians on trains, planes or taxis and definitely not in your hotel room. But here's the thing - once you get past the smell, they're delicious. And the Chinese in particular, says chef Zam, have fallen hard for Malaysia's best, the Musang King.
WAHAB: It's the best because, No. 1, the color is, like, golden yellow. The flesh is sweet with a slight bitterness at the end that makes it the most special one, the most special breed of all.
SULLIVAN: And one that can fetch up to $100 a kilo, even though China forbids the import of whole Malaysian durians - just frozen bits and pulp. Thailand is the only country which can export whole durians to China, but that's about to change in a few months' time when China starts allowing whole Malaysian durians in.
SIM TXE TZIN: This is going to be a game-changer.
SULLIVAN: And Malaysia's deputy minister of agriculture, Sim Txe Tzin, isn't above throwing a little shade at his Thai rivals, either.
TXE TZIN: For Malaysia durian, we are selling quality, OK? For Thai, they're selling quantity. It's just like Thais are selling beer, we are selling champagne - good quality champagne.
SULLIVAN: And there's a whole bunch of people looking to cash in on the durian gold rush.
NG LEE CHIN: I'm Lee Chin. I'm the chief executive officer of M7 Plantation Berhad, and one of the co-founder of this Musang King project in Gua Musang, Kelantan.
SULLIVAN: We're speaking at her company's new plantation, a former logging concession in a forest in the far north of the country. Not too long ago, growing durians was mostly a family business. Now, with the surging demand from China, it's going corporate fast, and Lee Chin's company is a major new player.
LEE CHIN: At the moment, we have planted 300 acres with Musang King durian trees.
SULLIVAN: That's about 15,000 trees since April last year. Their goal is 10 times that. The Malaysian government is an enthusiastic backer of making durians a major export earner, especially with rubber and palm oil prices tanking. But environmentalists aren't as keen.
LIM TEK WIN: The main point is that these durian plantations are expanding into forest reserves, into areas which were normally covered by natural forest.
SULLIVAN: And that's a problem, forest researcher Lim Tek Win says - one Malaysia's experienced before with both rubber and palm oil. Worst case, he says...
TEK WIN: The durian planters will clear an area of all the vegetation and just plant durians - rows and rows of durians. And the issue there is it destroys the biodiversity. It destroys the habitat of elephants, tigers, sun bears and thousands of different plant species.
SULLIVAN: Deputy Agriculture Minister Sim Txe Tzin insists that won't happen.
For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Kuala Lumpur.
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