To the average Westerner tofu is little more than an uninteresting, jiggly, white mass of blandness. I suppose that is because most of us first meet tofu at a local Chinese restaurant of questionable culinary skill and authenticity, where perhaps we come face-to-face with it simply cut into a soup, without any further preparation. When first encountering these little blobs of colorless, tasteless, textureless nothingness—it is hard to be impressed. Or, perhaps you met tofu in the form of a fake turkey roll brought to Thanksgiving dinner by a hippie aunt – that would be enough to traumatize anyone. It is perhaps inevitable that tofu has become the brunt of punchlines for American sitcoms and comedians alike.
For one, such as myself, raised in such a place, Taiwanese tofu and its use in cooking comes as quite a revelation. Among tofu cognisanti—yes there is such a thing—Taiwan is considered to be one of the finest makers of tofu. The breadth of different types of tofu that are manufactured here is stunning. Likewise the variety of dishes that use tofu is amazing. It is ubiquitous in Taiwanese food, and far from western perceptions of tofu, it is often used in stunning and adventurous ways in Taiwanese food.
For the purposes of this post I want to concentrate on one particular iteration of tofu that is very popular in Taiwan—chou doufu, or stinky tofu. It is one form of fermented tofu. Its production is a bit similar to how cheese is produced. The tofu is allowed to sit in a bacterial brine for a period ranging from days to months, depending on how the final product will be used. If it is intended simply to be added into other dishes, as an accent, it may only sit in the brine for a matter of days. Long enough to develop some smell, but not long enough to thoroughly ferment. The brine used varies from maker to maker. The brine may include a proprietary mix of fermented milk, meat and/or seafood, along with vegetable matter. Presumably, the smellier the mash the better the tofu. A typical brine might include Chinese herbs, dried fish or dried shrimp, bamboo, mustard and amaranth greens.
When the tofu finishes its production process its looks are substantially altered. It is no longer a pure white, but instead takes on the greyish tone of slightly decayed meat. (If you’ve ever taken an anatomy class you know the color well). Also, the individual tofu cakes are slightly pressed, giving them a denser consistency.
But, what about the smell that gives stinky tofu its name? I am sure that everyone experiences the smell differently, but for me stinky tofu smells remarkably like day old feces on sweaty ass crack. Indeed, on my first trip to Taiwan I marveled that street vendors would consistently set up their food stalls beside an open or broken sewer line, when they could easily have moved their stall a block up the street to a location where there was no raw sewage smell. Little did I know at the time that what I was actually smelling was what the food the vendor was selling. That revelation wouldn’t come until I actually moved to Taiwan several years later.
So, how does it taste? Wonderful! It has a complex earthy flavor with just a hint of shit on the palatte, most noticeable in the aftertaste. It is a rich pungent flower, comparable to a smelly cheese. I think this is the best way to think of stinky tofu—it is like blue cheese. Most cultures have their own pungent semi-rotten food that they enjoy, whether it is blue cheese, Norwegian lutefisk, Vietnamese hoi sin sauce, the sun dried (rotted) meat common in many regional cuisines. Stinky tofu is simply the strong tasting treat that sets the Taiwanese salivating.
Stinky tofu is served in a wide variety of dishes from san bei chou doufu (three cups stinky tofu) to kung pao stinky tofu (like kung pao chicken, but with stinky tofu). The most common ways to see stinky tofu served on the street or in the night markets of Taiwan is in a spicy soup—ma la chou doufu—or deep fried. The later is delicious, though my favorite is the slightly less common grilled stinky tofu, Danshui style. Stinky tofu is available almost everywhere, day or night, from street corners to the market. It is a wonderful late night snack and is the perfect accompaniment for your after work beer. Deep fried stinky tofu is served with lightly pickled cabbage leaves and hot sauce. The tofu itself is very crispy on the outside, but when you bite into it your taste buds are rewarded with the wonderfully rich and pungent flavors of a well-ferment cake of bean curd. I love it so much that I have even become a bit picky about my stinky tofu. I won’t accept it if it doesn’t have enough of a fecal smell. I am inevitably disappointed if I bite into a nice aromatic piece of tofu only to find out that it lacks the flavor that its smell promised.
If you’re in Taiwan and want to try this delectable treat, just follow your nose. In my opinion, not to mention that of millions of Taiwanese, it is well worth the effort.