Here I am, in the throes of a bad head cold, can’t smell anything, and can barely taste anything, so I figure that now is the exactly ideal time to try that inexplicably popular Shanghai street food snack, chòu dòufu 臭豆腐, also known as stinky tofu.
‘Is that your name for it?’ my friend asks. ‘No’, I say, ‘that’s a direct translation of what it’s called in Chinese. Honestly.’
My Chinese dictionary gives this example of the use of the word chòu (stinky):
Ta de jiao ai chuhan, yi tuo xie jiu ewendao chou wei.
He has sweaty feet – the moment he takes off his shoes one scents the foul smell.
Charmless, but that should give you a clue to the kind of stinky stink we’re talking about. So stinky, the reek of it can be smelled at the other end of the street from where it’s being cooked. With a retch-inducing scent of ammonia, dead possum, and blocked sewerage pipes, I still can’t work out whether Chinese people really love to eat this, or they just love the thought of eating something the rest of the world finds so overwhelmingly revolting. Please, readers, fill me in.
So how do you make perfectly good tofu stink? First, you need something like a hermetically-sealed aircraft hangar in which to make the fermented brine, from rotten soy milk, vegetables, herbs and sometimes shrimp or meat. A good brine takes months to mature, and during this time you better keep that hangar door closed. Once the brine is ready, you can add your tofu to it for anything from two days to two weeks. This process gives the tofu an unusual honeycomb texture and that indescribable stinky tofu smell. This is obviously not a job for home-brew enthusiasts, unless you’re trying to evacuate all the other residents from your building, and recipes are not readily available for public health reasons. For the same reason, stinky tofu is more likely to be sold as a street food, in the open air, than in the enclosed confines of a restaurant.
Back on the street, the chòu dòufu is usually cut into bite-sized squares and deep-fried in a wok full of boiling oil. The squares are threaded onto a stick, then pasted with a sweet or spicy sauce of your choice.
Now for the tasting. I figure without my sense of smell or taste working, I’m well-protected, but what I don’t figure on is my own active imagination, conjuring up visions of the tofu pieces I’m about to put in my mouth having been dragged out of a vat full of excrement and rotting shrimp heads. Plus or minus maggots. The pungency is working its way through my nose regardless, and I feel like I might back down, or gag, or both. Only now there is a small crowd of onlookers and I just have to take the plunge, or risk losing face, so I take a big bite of the first square. Actually, not bad. The outside is crispy and salted, the inside creamy, with a texture like a set custard. The chili sauce helps. But the second bite is harder than the first, and the third harder still. That smell. I work my way through three pieces before I lose my nerve. The stinky tofu stays down but for the next two days I can recall the smell with nauseating intensity, despite the head cold.
Why do I do these things? Because. Because I’d hate to say I’d been to China and never even tried it. And does it taste like blue cheese, like some people say? Not a bit like it. Does the taste make up for the smell? No. No. No. The only relief is that the taste is nothing like the smell. Perhaps that’s the attraction.
In Shanghai stinky tofu can be tried at the street food market at Sipailou Lu, at Qibao old town, and occasionally at Yu Gardens, particularly at times like Chinese New Year. Good luck, and go bravely forward, you adventurous foodie.
You will no doubt(!) find the other street foods in this series a bit more appetising:
Number 24 Guotie – potsticker dumplings
Number 25 Nuomi Cai Tou – fried clover pancakes