Stinky tofu is
such a notorious dish that it seems an odd thing that I cannot
recall my own first encounter. What I do remember though,
is my father's reaction when he first discovered it. He and
my brother were visiting me in Taiwan and we were doing a
brief tour of the island. We were in Tainan, the old city
that in the 17th Century was the centre of a brief period
of Dutch occupation. We had come to marvel
at the old temples Tainan is famous for.
unfurling my map as we walked down the street, when
my father stopped in his tracks, spun around, mildly
frantic, as if searching for the source of some
"God, what's that smell?"
I pointed to a stinky tofu vendor, acrid smoke wafting over
"That's what they call stinky tofu. Want to try some?"
In retrospect it was a silly question. My dad shot off at what was for him, an
unusually quick pace, and didn't slow down until he was safely out of range,
certain he wasn't being followed.
There is a good reason why stinky tofu is a street food. Try cooking this dish
at home, and you will promptly be asked to move out; not just from the house,
but from the neighbourhood. It is also known as smelly tofu. But smelly hardly
seems an adequate adjective to describe the reeking power of this fermented bean
curd. It is often said that stinky tofu is to China what the durian is to south
east Asia, or what Stilton cheese is to England. It is roughly comparable to
the smell of a fetid, open sewer anywhere on the planet, (though I have a friend
who disputes this: he reckons you would never notice the smell of the sewer with
a stinky tofu stall nearby).
It is widely available in China but in Taiwan stinky tofu is especially popular.
Few restaurants serve it. Those that do are likely to be specialists – if
all your customers are eating it no one will be offended, right? These places
usually offer a variety of stinky tofu such as deep-fried, stewed, steamed or
is normally eaten in Taiwan, stinky tofu is deep-fried.
It should be golden and crisp, even crusty. It is served
with spicy topping that nicely compliments the tofu
and offsets any deep fry greasiness.
Once the cubes
of tofu are fried and drained, the vendor
gently makes a hole in the top of each cube with a chopstick
or tongs. This lets the topping penetrate the crust. The
topping is crucial to the dish. It consists of vinegar,
sesame oil, shredded oriental cucumber, and pickled Chinese
cabbage. The topping is finished off with a dollop each of
chilli sauce and minced garlic. When you order a plate of
the stinky stuff, you will probably also get a simple soup
with it, gratis. The strong odour is mainly in the cooking,
and it subsides quite a lot once the tofu comes out of the
oil. Either that, or by then you are so saturated in its
perfume that you are getting used to it.
Tofu in its basic form is invariably described as bland, so what puts the stink
into stinky tofu? For this a fermentation brine is needed. Traditionally this
was done in a very large unlidded earthenware jar. Vegetables and possibly shrimp
are added to the brine. The whole mixture is left to
fester for up to six months while micro-organisms have their
way. Transforming innocuous white cubes into something terrifying,
only requires about four to six hours in the brine. The tofu
is then rinsed, and aged overnight in a refrigerator before
it is ready to be cooked.
The stinky tofu vendor will rent stall space in a night
market or set up a few folding tables by the side of a busy
road, cooking from a stove set on the back of a small truck.
He is a consummate marketer, with no need for extravagant
signs or loud speakers to ballyhoo his wares. His promotion
is direct and immediate, and gratification is nearly instant.
Late in the afternoon he fires up his oil filled wok and
drops in five large cubes of tofu. Within seconds a strange,
highly pungent odour permeates the air, invading the nostrils
of anyone within whiffing distance. Devotees, (and there
are many) will be drawn by the unmistakable aroma. Everyone
else will run like hell, which is basically what my dad did
That whole afternoon in Tainan was very
frustrating. Nothing we searched for was where it was supposed
to be. Instead of quaint old temples all we found to marvel
at were rows of old grey houses and shabby apartment buildings.
My embarrassment grew instep with my father’s annoyance.
My brother’s dirty looks became more frequent. I
blamed the map for being wrong, the Tainan City Government
for moving all the temples; I blamed everything I could
think of. I couldn’t accept the
fact that we were pathetically lost, and to make matters
worse, I was too proud to ask local people for help. By mid-afternoon
a typical exchange of words went something like this:
Me: “But the Matsu Temple must be here! The map says …”
My father or brother: “Do you
have any idea where we are?”
Me: “Just give me a minute and we’ll
get back on track.”
Finally, as the sun was going down,
somehow, we found ourselves back in the central district
near the railway station, the faint smell of stinky tofu
in the air by now something familiar and almost welcome.
Footsore and exhausted we found our hotel and collapsed
on the beds. By then it had dawned on me that my map had
been back-the-front. What I had thought was north, was
actually south. No wonder we never arrived anywhere. The
only explanation I could think of, beside blatant incompetence – a
possibility I dismissed immediately – was that we had
been completely disoriented; sent off on a wrong trajectory
by our shock encounter with that noxious stinky tofu. Yes,
because of stinky tofu we had completely missed, what are
the generally accepted attractions of
During dinner, I tried once more to put a good light on
the non-events of the day.
“Well, at least we got to see all
kinds of things that tourists never get to see.
The real Tainan!”
Thereafter followed silence and a very early night.
Though the Tainan leg of the trip had
been a disaster, all in all I think my father and brother
had an interesting time in Taiwan. The next day they
continued by bus on to the east coast where without my
they seemed to find
more excitement. In Hualian they joined a rafting trip on
the Xiuguluan River. During the three hour paddle they capsized,
and, says my brother, my father did not surface above the
rapids for a worryingly long time; and they met a young woman
from Singapore who took them for a gay couple, but ended
up later marrying my brother anyway.
I stayed on in Taiwan and eventually developed a taste for stinky tofu. It is
now one of my favourite street snacks. My brother has never since visited me
in Taiwan, and it took years for my father to make a reluctant return trip. Nothing
has ever been said, but I wonder if memories of stinky tofu in Tainan had something
to do with that.