Tag Archives: stinky tofu

Food Names

Using English names in Taiwan can be a problem. Restaurant menus might be my favorite example. A lot of Chinese restaurants here feel compelled to offer an English menu. The owners think it gives their restaurant that certain je ne sais quoi. Frankly, I wish they wouldn’t go to the effort.

Food inherently sounds bad in English, even if the translation is good. It is a problem with the language. Britain has contributed to world culture in many ways, but its contribution to world cuisine has been less than stellar, consequently food sounds singularly unappetizing in English. Restaurants in the West know this and put as much of their menu as possible in a foreign language. French and Italian sound delicious and are good choices.  Which are you more likely to order calamari or deep-fried squid, escargot or snails, ris de veau or a calf’s pancreas?

Such subtleties are inevitably lost on Taiwanese restaurant owners who think that an English menu gives their restaurant a certain continental charm. Many restaurants provide English translations for the dishes they serve.  Even small family run restaurants often have menus running up to three hundred dishes.  Developing the English menu is a monumental task that used to frequently fall to the eldest child, who still in school and forced to study English, must be up to the task. Usually they took a very literal approach, thus you could find yourself in a restaurant choosing between the Horse Urine Eggs or the Chicken Blood and Testes in Chafing Dish. I have seen both on Taiwanese menus during my earlier days here. I went with the Horse Urine Eggs. Delightful.

The arrival of Google has really helped with this problem. It is now possible for our hypothetical restaurant owner, or child, to go online and find a reasonable translation for many Chinese dishes. With just a few seconds on Google I was able to create this short English menu for a hypothetical restaurant.


豬血糕 Pig’s Blood Cake

皮蛋 100-Year Old Egg

臭豆腐Stinky Tofu

油豆腐Oily Bean Curd

靈芝金銀鴨血羹 Duck Blood, Mushrooms and Tofu Soup

麵筋百葉 Fried Wheat Gluten Puff and Tofu Skin

家常皮凍 Pork Skin Aspic

鹵水鴨舌 Marinated Duck Tongue

拌爽口海苔  Sea Moss with Sauce

米醋海蜇 Jellyfish in Vinegar

鹵水鵝頭 Marinated Goose Heads

拌雙耳   Tossed Black and White Fungus

紅燒牛蹄筋  Braised Beef Tendon in Brown Sauce

火燎鴨心 Sautéed Duck Hearts

美極掌中寶  Sautéed Chicken Feet in Maggi Sauce

幹鍋雞胗 Griddle Cooked Chicken Gizzards

咕嚕肉   Sweet and Sour Pork with Fat

臘八豆炒臘肉   Sautéed Preserved Pork with Fermented Soy Beans

米粉扣肉 Steamed Sliced Pork Belly with Rice Flour

梅櫻小炒皇 Sautéed Squid with Shredded Pork and Leek

幹豇豆燉豬蹄   Braised Pig’s Feet with Dried Cowpeas

芸豆燜豬尾  Braised Pigtails with French Beans

小炒脆骨 Sautéed Gristle

九轉大腸 Braised Intestines in Brown Sauce

鍋仔藥膳烏雞   Stewed Black-Boned Chicken with Chinese Herbs


The problem is, despite a sound translation, the dishes sound awful. If you’re unused to Chinese food, I can understand being turned off by the dish itself. Some of the dishes include things that seem inedible; goose heads, tendons, and gristle. Others just seem putrid; jellyfish, fungus, fried wheat gluten, pork skin, duck tongue, chicken’s feet, intestines, gizzards, pig’s feet and tails. But, among these dishes are some of my favorite Chinese foods. I’m not turned off by the dish itself, but I do find the English names off-putting. A 100-Year Old Egg? Why would anyone want to eat something that old? This is probably a nicer translation than Horse Urine Egg, but only marginally. Stinky Tofu is one of my favorite treats (here), but stinky is a horrible adjective for food. I know it is a translation of 臭, but I think the English has a more unpalatable feel.

The names provide almost no description and are merely a statement of what is in the dish. Despite this, somehow these names manage to be shockingly descriptive, in a negative way. Sweet and Sour Pork with Fat, it is the “with Fat” that makes this sound bad in English. In the case of Braised Intestines in Brown Sauce, even if the fact that they are intestines doesn’t bother you, the name is still unappealing. The juxtaposition of intestines with brown sauce leaves much to be desired. It is hard not to imagine intestine’s other brown sauce. Stewed Black-Boned Chicken with Chinese Herbs sounds bad in English. Why does the chicken have black bones? What’s wrong with it?

I wish restauranteurs wouldn’t translate their dishes into English.  Chinese is poetic and makes many dishes sound intriguing: 螞蟻上樹 (Ants Climbing a Tree) or 佛跳牆 (Buddha Jumps Over the Wall). I would rather order youtiao than Oil Stick, jiaoyan ruge than Fried Pigeon with Spiced Salt, or mao xue wang (毛血旺) than Two Types Blood and Two Types Innards in Spicy Sauce. If you find yourself faced with a menu that lacks English, do what I did for years, call the server over and randomly point at some dishes. It’s fun. It is like going into a store and buying a mystery box. When you receive the food, then you’ll know what the characters mean. It is a good way to learn Chinese and explore Chinese cuisine.

Gimme the Tofu, and Lay Some Stank on It

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.