Once planted in family orchards and small-scale farms, the durian — described by some as smelling like an open sewer or turpentine when ripe — is attracting investments like never before. Even property tycoons and companies in palm oil, Malaysia's biggest agricultural export, are making forays into the durian business.
The Malaysian government is encouraging large-scale farming of durian, counting on a 50 percent jump in exports by 2030.
"The durian industry is transforming from local to global, large-scale farming due to the great demand from China," said Lim Chin Khee, a durian industry consultant. "Before the boom, a durian farm in Malaysia would be a leisure farm ... Now they are hundreds of acres and bigger, and many more will come."
Durian may be banned in some airports, public transport and hotels in Southeast Asia for its pungent smell, but the Chinese are huge fans. Durian-flavored foods sold in China include pizza, butter, salad dressing and milk.
"At first, I also hated durians because I thought they have a weird smell," said Helen Li, 26, eating at a shop specializing in durian pizza in Shanghai, where nearly every customer ordered the 60 yuan ($8.50) dish during a recent lunch hour rush. "But when you taste it, it's really quite delicious. I think those who hate durian are scared by its smell. But once you try it, I think their opinion will change."
At another Shanghai restaurant selling durian chicken hotpot — a type of sizzling broth — for around 148 yuan ($21), owner Chen Weihao said the store could sell around 20 to 25 kg of imported Thai durian every month.
"When you taste it, it has a kind of fresh and sweet flavor, as if you have arrived in the tropics," said 27-year-old customer Yang Yang.