“Ugh, what’s that smell?” says my friend as she covers her nose. She has just landed in Taiwan and thrown onto the streets of Taipei without a warning of the smells to come. “That, my dear, is the pride of Taiwan.”
I have been living in Taiwan for about a year now. I have gotten used to the sights of raw meat dangling on hooks in the morning market, the taste of bitter pickled fruits, but I will never- and I mean never- get used to the smell of Stinky Tofu.
Stinky Tofu, or chòu dòufu as they call it in Chinese, is made by first fermenting a strange brine mixture of sour milk, meat and vegetables. The brine itself takes months to ferment- creating gases and odors that truly smell like a sewer. When the brine is ready, you take perfectly good, fresh tofu made from soybean, and double fry it in stinky oil; once to remove the water content, and a second time to give it a somewhat soggy skin. Then, the porous, hot tofu is submerged into that stinky, fermented sauce to soak up all the flavors while giving off an aroma that only a Taiwanese can stomach. After all this time and effort, the finished product is ready to be enjoyed by locals and avoided at by foreigners.
Walking through any of Taipei’s night markets is an exciting scene with bright lights and people abuzz- and an inevitable violation to your nostrils by the Stinky Tofu stand. Every night market has one of these stands, typically serving Stinky Tofu on a stick, because this “treat” is in high demand. Order one, if you dare, and you’ll be handed skewer with a couple pieces delicately hanging on. Wrinkly, brown skin on the outside, and warm and gelatinous tofu on the inside- you can eat it plain, or choose to drizzle a thick soy sauce based sauce on top. Even after dousing these Taiwanese delicacies in sauce, you cannot cover up the retched pungency that fills your mouth. If you’re trying Stinky Tofu for the first time, you might psychically gag.
With all this hype, I still just don’t get it. How did a dish, famous for smelling like rotten garbage, come to be regarded as appetizing in a land of otherwise pretty tasty food? The story really is not going to come as a surprise…
Back in the days of imperial examination on Mainland China, the economy wasn’t exactly thriving. That meant that business owners weren’t seeing their products flying off the shelves (or sticks, for this matter). So, one day a single Tofu vendor in Beijing found himself with a surplus of tofu and no modern-day refrigerator to store it! He went with the next best option, which was to bury it in the ground inside of a clay pot. When he took his tofu out a few weeks later, he found that it was green and smelled horrible. This man did what any sane-minded person would do…he ate it, and he liked it. Even more miraculous, he somehow convinced others around him to try it and even they liked it. And there you have it; that is how Stinky Tofu was born!
Today, you can find Stinky Tofu in China and Hong Kong, but Taiwan is the country, which really gets creative with Stinky Tofu. Head over to the Taipei neighborhood called Shenkeng, the district that is famous for tofu. You can pop into a dim sum restaurant where you will find Stinky Tofu used in many ways. Order a spicy hot pot version of Stinky Tofu where your pungent cubes dance in a broth of duck blood, pork intestines and pickled vegetables inspired by the Szechuan province of the mainland. You can choose to order your Stinky Tofu on a plate doused in hot sauces and pickled peppers. Or the best option if you are new to Stinky Tofu is to order it off the BBQ; this method smokes out some of the volatile flavor so you don’t have to suffer completely in order to experience this roller coaster of cuisine.
If you come to Taiwan and interact with the locals, you will surely be asked, “Have you tried Stinky Tofu, yet?” It’s almost like an initiation or a right of passage. Maybe that’s how a nation came to embrace this otherwise tragic mess of a dish- via bragging rights. Taiwanese people, even Taiwanese children, claim to love this dish and say that the more stinky the tofu, the more delicious the taste- as if it’s a competition. Despite every gross detail you hear about and personally smell regarding this dish- somehow, you too, will end up eating Stinky Tofu when you come to Taiwan.