Evil Smells and Heavenly Bites: Our Davao Food Expeditions

Someone described it as “hell on the outside and heaven on the inside.” Another likened eating one to “sitting on the toilet while eating your favorite ice cream.” At least those guys liked the fruit’s taste. Others weren’t as generous. Henri Mouhot, the French naturalist and explorer who popularized the ruins of Angkor to the West, didn’t mince words: “On first tasting it I thought it like the flesh of some animal in a state of putrefaction.” And even Bizarre Foods host and “king of eating weird stuff” Andrew Zimmern spat out the first durian he tasted.

durian fruit showing thorny exterior
Its exterior looks like the tip of a deadly, spiked medieval weapon (Leo once got nicked bad when he improperly handled one) but its interior has a “custardy” texture

No fruit has ever been as divisive as the durian. You either love it to death or hate it with a passion. Although durian is consumed in great quantities all over Southeast Asia, it used to be popular locally only in Mindanao, and especially in Davao City. In recent times more and more durian are being planted and harvested in other parts of the country but Davao’s durian is still the best in our opinion. Much of this is due to the 2.3 million Rousette fruit bats at the Monfort Bat Sanctuary in nearby Samal, the Guinness World Records holder for the largest single bat colony. The bats of Samal and Talicud are the ones mainly responsible for pollinating the durian farms in Davao.

split durian fruit revealing its interior, Davao
You really haven’t been to Davao if you haven’t tried their durian

It was in Davao City where we lost our “durian virginity” (read CNN Travel’s Leela Punyaratabandhu on how to do this “quickly and painlessly”). Nina had been assigned there for a year by our organization while Leo later dropped by from Manila for a project (we were not yet married at the time). While both our first attempts at consuming durian didn’t exactly endear us to the fruit, it wasn’t as bad as in the massively entertaining anecdotes about people trying to conquer their fear of the dreaded fruit. Credit goes to friends from Davao who knew how to break us into enjoying durian. Over time we developed a real passion for it and it has now become one of our favorites – Leo’s favorite in fact.

durian at stalls in Davao City
L: durian at a stall in Calinan; R: Opening a durian at a night mobile stall in one of Davao’s streets

For first-timers quivering at the thought of trying this smelly, thorny fruit, Davao, fortunately has many ways of breaking them in. Over the years the city has introduced various durian-based sweets and desserts such as durian candies, pie, cakes, ice cream, tarts, pastel, coffee and shakes. Most of these products, while durian-flavored, do not have the strong flavor of the fruit and therefore helps one to gradually adjust to the durian’s taste. Leo’s most recent favorite is durian hopia. Hopia (called bakpia in Indonesia and elsewhere) was originally a bean-filled, moon cake-like pastry; in this case the beans were replaced by a durian filling.

Tropical Fruit Exotica

interior of a marang fruit
A marang fruit with its appealing interior

Although Davao is often referred to as the “durian capital” of the country (it supplies some 80% of the durian in the Philippines), there are many other tropical fruits here that are not found in considerable quantities in other parts of the Philippines. All of which lends an exotic aura to this city.

pomelos on a tree
Davao is also famous in the Philippines for its sweet and juicy pomelos; these are from a farm where we had a one-day retreat and outing in 2015

A fruit that may be found in many a stall or market in Davao is the marang, another strongly scented fruit – though not as intense and repulsive-smelling as the durian. The marang exterior looks like a cross between a jackfruit and a breadfruit while its interior looks appealing with its soft and juicy white flesh. The marang has a short shelf life and needs to be consumed quickly once it ripens. Other fruits include mangosteen (a sweet and tangy fruit with a reddish-purple colored rind when ripe and a soft white flesh), pomelo, and the hairy, reddish rambutan. The mangosteen is increasingly being valued for its many health-enhancing benefits.

The mangosteen is increasingly being valued for its many health-enhancing benefits
rambutans at a fruit stall

Although there several areas in Davao City that house fruit stands such as Magsaysay Park, the Agdao Public Market and the Bankerohan Market, you can get really cheap fruits by venturing to the districts at the outskirts of the city such as Calinan. The prices of fruits, especially durian, mangosteen, marang, rambutan and lanzones drop sharply from August to early October. This is the time when you can get durian for as low as P20 per kilo (or even as low as P10 in some places outside Davao City). We once had a one-day retreat to a vacation place near Calinan and were told that we could grab all the rambutans and durians we can lay our hands on at the trees inside the resort. It was pure joy.

fruit stalls at Magsaysay Park
Fruit stalls at Magsaysay Park

Panga and Other Dishes

grilled jaw of yellowfin tuna
Grilled yellowfin tuna jaw or panga ng bariles in local parlance

Davao is also popular for the grilled panga ng bariles or jaw of a yellowfin tuna. The city is the country’s second largest source of this fish, next only to General Santos and quantities of the delicious jaw of the yellowfin find their way into Davao’s markets, restaurants and food stalls. Along with the kinilaw na malasugi or broadbill swordfish ceviche (oftentimes the malasugi is translated as blue marlin), the grilled panga ng tuna is definitely one of the must-try items on a Davao food trip list.

lechon or roast pig, Davao
As with the rest of the country, traditional roast pig or lechon is a popular dish at banquets in Davao
signage for roast crocodile, Davao Crocodile Farm
Not yet that popular is crocodile lechon; we can at least be sure this meat is from a farmed crocodile

During our latest foray into the city we got to visit the Davao Crocodile Park for the first time. The park is home to a variety of wildlife as well as several hundred crocodiles that are being cultured. Several crocodile products such as wallets, bags, belts and other leather products, crocodile oil and soap were on display. We were particularly intrigued by a poster at a food stall advertising crocodile lechon or roasted crocodile. But the store was closed on the day we arrived so we moved on to another crocodile product.

crocodile ice cream and signage, Davao Crocodile Park
Croc ice cream. What were we thinking?

We ended up trying crocodile ice cream. Half-expecting to find crocodile meat in an ice cream, we were surprised that it tasted just like any other ice cream. Turns out that crocodile ice cream is made using crocodilian eggs. It was supposed to be healthier too, since the eggs contain less cholesterol. At least we could be sure the crocs were eating meat fed them on the farm and not God-knows-what. Or who…

8 thoughts on “Evil Smells and Heavenly Bites: Our Davao Food Expeditions

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  1. Our guide in Sumatra said Durian ‘smelled like hell but tasted like heaven’ well, he got one part right! I bought some chocolate with it in as a creamy filing and it was quite delightful, though I can’t see it catching on in the UK market place! I’ve just posted my photos of Sumatra, but sadly, not shots of this strange fruit.

    1. Thanks for visiting Jane! Just the smell of durian would already create problems in the U.K. I’m almost sure. But chocolates with durian sounds like a great idea. People here have tried pairing dried mangoes with chocolate and it is now a bestseller. Dark chocolate should make for an excellent partner. We should try it the next time we get this fruit.

    1. Thanks Marianne. Durian seems like an acquired taste. We didn’t exactly like durian the first time we tried but over time we ended up loving it. It’s Leo’s favorite fruit in fact.

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