I was in Taipei last March, wandering through the alleyways of the Ximending shopping district. I was lost in my own world—and a little lost—so it was odd to look up and see a tourist glancing at me, her face wrinkled in sheer disgust.
More tourists walked past, each looking at me like I’d just kicked a puppy.
Five seconds later, the reason hit me like a sledgehammer to the nose. Around the corner, a stinky tofu stall was in full flow, blowing its reek into the faces of the tourists scurrying past.
The face they were pulling wasn’t for me; it was for the tofu they were trying to escape.
There are foods that smell good and taste better. There are dishes that smell amazing, but don’t live up to their aroma.
And then there’s stinky tofu.
It smells gobsmackingly rancid, rich in the things you’d never want to go near, let alone ingest. Unmistakable notes of garbage, unwashed feet and a tang of urine define this delicacy. The smell is inescapably off-putting. It doesn’t even have any of the rich honey-ness of the similarly polarizing durian.
It’s a smell that only a mother could love.
And yet it’s a fantastically popular street snack. There’s not a night market in China and Taiwan that doesn’t serve up these malodorous cubes. Why on earth do people subject themselves to stinky tofu?
Because it tastes really, really good.
THE FIRST STINK
The origins of stinky tofu are lost in the smelly mists of time, but the apocryphal story goes that in China’s Qing dynasty, a down-on-his-luck tofu seller by the name of Wang Zhihe left some tofu he hadn’t been able to sell in a jar.
When he remembered it a few days later, it had gone green—but he tried it, and lo, stinky tofu was born.
No one knows if the story is true, but the idea behind it is mostly accurate.
‘To stand on a street corner and crunch into stinky tofu is to get a little bite of everything that makes Asia so wonderful’
Stinky tofu is actually fermented tofu, which is left to sit in a brine of salt, fermented milk, herbs, spices and more: sometimes even meat.
The brine takes months to ferment properly before the tofu is added. It permeates into the tofu, changing its texture and taste.
Brine recipes are jealously guarded secrets, foul keys to these cubes of gold.
There are as many ways to eat stinky tofu as there are ways to describe the smell. You can have it barbecued, steamed, served in a numbing Sichuan-style mala broth.
Accompaniments vary by region too. You might expect pickled vegetables, garlic, hoisin or soy sauce. You’ll almost always get a little dose of chili.
There are even different kinds of tofu, with varying pungencies depending on their origins. Hunan-style stinky tofu is a disconcerting black-blue, making it unappetizing to look at as well as to smell. Let’s not even talk about the green-tinged varieties.
THE STENCH OF THE STREET
Some restaurants specialize in the dish, and it can also be served as a side. (It’s a courageous eatery that puts stinky tofu on the menu without triple-checking its ventilation systems.)
But for me, stinky tofu is first and foremost a street snack.
My favorite way to eat it is the most simple: deep-fried, unceremoniously stabbed onto a skewer and slathered with chili sauce.
All Chinese food prizes texture, and deep-fried stinky tofu is no different. You bite through a crisp, crunchy crust into the soft, spongy, almost creamy tofu beneath.
‘I honestly think that it might be the perfect street food’
That’s when the taste comes through. Yes, the smell is strong, but here’s the secret no one wants to admit: The flavor is far milder. It’s like a fine blue cheese, rich and mature with sour notes and just a hint of sweetness.
There’s a lot going on in this little, smelly cube. I honestly think that it might be the perfect street food. And that’s not just because it’s better to eat it somewhere your companions can make sure they’re not downwind of you.
It’s because street food puts you right in the middle of it all.
In the street, there’s no soft lighting or gentle music to soften the blow. When you’re eating in a street every one of your senses is telling you that yes, you are somewhere else, eating something interesting.
To stand on a street corner and crunch into stinky tofu is to get a little bite of everything that makes Asia so wonderful: contrasting textures, tastes, influences, inspirations—and stunningly good food.
If the price is the occasional wrinkled nose, I’ll pay it with pleasure.