There is a very good reason why they call it “stinky tofu” (臭豆腐 chòu dòu fu).
The internet, until we are able to upload “sniff-shots,” will never be able to fully describe this unrepeatable dish found in certain restaurants and many street markets here in Taiwan, and other Southeast Asian countries. Some of you may have had it, and will understand the experience of eating what is, at the same time, an oddly delicious and close-to-fecal-matter-smelling tofu dish.
It is an extreme “tastes better than it smells” food. It has a very distinctive odor some have described as a mixture of rotten garbage and manure (a dairy farm comes to mind for me). It is something that, once you know what is it, stays with your sensory consciousness thereafter. I sometimes wonder if it alters your olfactory sense, but probably not.
I don’t mean to exaggerate the smell of stinky tofu. It’s not like you can smell it a mile away on the street or anything. It is more like 2/3 of a mile; maybe 3/4, depending on the wind.
Stinky tofu comes in a wide variety of incarnations: boiled, fried, raw, baked, skewered, plain, etc. I’m not sure about smoothies, though. Or ice cream.
Here are some images from Google, variations on a theme.
For those who know durian, there is an understandable comparison between the two. Many, or most people here in Taiwan and other SE Asian countries love stinky tofu; the smell just adds to the full-body experience of eating it, it seems.
For 外國學生 (wài guó xué shēng), foreign students, eating stinky tofu is a kind of rite-of-passage. Many people happily relate stories of their one (and only) time trying it. Some, however, relent to the difficult sensory contradiction and admit they actually like it.
The process of making it is quite interesting, though you have to wonder who thought it up in the first place. It is basically tofu marinated in a fermented brine of various vegetables, sometimes with meat as well. Because there is no standard, required starter, or UN World Health Organization regulations for the fermented brine, there is a fair amount of regional variation of strength and flavor. The tofu can stay marinating in the solution anywhere from a day to a few weeks, getting stronger with each passing minute.
I came across an informative and quite humorous video clip from a food travel show introducing stinky tofu. This guy seems to be able (and willing!) to eat anything in the world, but as you see, if you watch the whole 10 minutes, he did manage to get beat by two stinky tofu dishes. Well done Taiwan!
I’ve had the responsibility of eating stinky tofu a few times since coming to Taiwan (coming up on three months now.) The first time, which was the tastiest, I can plead ignorant as I didn’t know what the heck it was. It was just one of the dishes at the monastery on my second, bleary-eyed day in Taiwan. It was enjoyable, once it was in the mouth. But the nose put up a near-compelling argument against what almost seems like complete self-disregard.
The last time I ate stinky tofu was a bit of a strange experience, or at least an unexpected one. At 德貴 (déguì), the building I live at in Taipei during the weekday, we often have dinner in the evenings prepared by one of the volunteers who help Dharma Drum Buddhist Association. A few weeks ago, there were many more people at 德貴 at dinner for some reason (I rarely know what is going on there; I just try to happily adjust). After everyone had eaten their fill, someone had the idea (!!) to run out and get stinky tofu for everyone. It was as if they thought it would be a nice dessert or something.
I was shocked, honestly shocked; not only because stinky tofu is not what you would call a light-on-the-stomach sort of food, but also because three dozen containers of fresh, hot stinky tofu in a finite, enclosed space is a bit much. However, I dutifully accepted the kind offer of the container, but had to save it for the next day. I was just too full from dinner to risk any accidental or conditioned gag response from something smelling a bit illegal.
Everyone was quite happy, and I am pleased to report that the experience of sharing such a culinary wonder that evening was not nearly as challenging as I expected. It was very nice to be a part of a happy Taiwan food moment, though tangentially.
To end now, here’s a another humorous video of a young Taiwanese boy trying his first 臭豆腐. His facial expressions show a bit better what this post has attempted to share.
As always, I hope you are well.