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'King of fruits' set to extend sway over Chinese consumers

By Alexis Hooi | China Daily | Updated: 2021-04-23 09:52
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Two years ago, an oversupply of Malaysian durians set mouths watering across the region.

A kilogram of the highly prized Musang King variety was going for about $13, nearly half the usual price, according to local reports.

Hearing the news from afar, I could only enviously imagine gourmets gorging on the glut.

The durian is the "king of fruits". Its first-time eaters who brave warnings about spiky shells and overpowering odors are rewarded with the opulently luscious, custard-like flesh. For many of them, it is the start of a lifelong culinary addiction-but usually only if you are in the fruit's native Southeast Asian areas. Unfortunately, many durians found on Chinese supermarket shelves consist of bland-tasting frozen varieties.

Thankfully, especially for Chinese consumers who have also been getting a taste for durian in recent years, that may be about to change significantly, as better trade, business and logistics networks develop across the region and beyond to cater to pent-up, post-pandemic demand.

Chinese authorities rolled out measures in May 2019 to expand the import of Malaysian durians, aimed at boosting the 300,000 metric tons of durians China takes in every year, mostly from Thailand.

The move fueled the import of whole durian fruits from Malaysia, which already saw its total durian production rise to 341,000 tons in 2018 from 211,000 tons in 2017. The improved links to the Chinese market were set to contribute nearly 500 million ringgit ($121 million) to Malaysia's total export value annually, according to Malaysian authorities in 2019. Besides durian, the Malaysian government is also expecting to boost exports to China, ranging from palm oil and petrochemical products, to manufactured goods and other agricultural resources.

In South China's Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region alone, the China-Malaysia Qinzhou Industrial Park-which is within the Qinzhou Port Area of the China (Guangxi) Pilot Free Trade Zone, one of six such zones approved by the State Council in August 2019-is poised to tap growing regional trade and business links for improved access to products and services. The zone covers customs, as well as quality, safety and health inspection facilities to help ensure that food imports meet strict standards for domestic consumption.

Trade in specialty commodities between China and Malaysia is enjoying positive growth. Last year's imports of shelled durians totaled more than 660 tons valued at nearly 33 million yuan ($5.06 million), helping drive Malaysia's total durian imports to over 1,032 tons, says Mo Fuwen, deputy director-general of the port area's administrative committee.

The 2020 China-Malaysia (Guangxi) Online Durian Festival also reaped more than 70 million yuan, according to the joint organizers.

From everyday treats like coffee and ice cream to festive delicacies, including Duanwu Festival dumplings and Mid-Autumn Festival mooncakes, consumer demand for durian-flavored foods presents huge potential for growth.

"The strong smell and taste of durian just about overwhelms whatever you add it to. Many people who like it will also go for anything that tastes like it," Mo says.

More broadly, the durians offer a striking example of the strong economic ties being formed in the run-up to greater cooperation and development between China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations via the recently signed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership major free trade agreement.

Guangxi itself is in an admirable position for the country to tap opportunities from the RCEP, which involves China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and the 10 ASEAN members. The world's largest free trade agreement covers one-third of the global population and 30 percent of global GDP. Once the agreement takes effect, countries are set to reduce tariffs, fulfill commitments to open investment in the service sector and further facilitate the integration of the regional supply chain and goods-inspection standards.

These all mean that I may soon be able to also feast on fresh, affordable Musang King durians from my local grocery store.

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