Western eyes (13): Eating stinky


Eating Stinky

Chinese portal  Chinese cuisine, made up of incredible varieties of regional delicacies, is one of the most renowned in the world for its complex flavours, aromas and presentations.

The visuals and sizzles of the opening sequence of Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman where Chi, a senior chef lovingly prepares a Sunday lunch for her three daughters is a dream for a true gourmand. The visuals are so entrancing you could almost taste them!

Eating Stinky, CHINESE FOOD, CHINESE CULTURE, TRADITIONAL, YUMMY, TOFUA proper feasts around a lazy Susan with a group of friends is a must have culinary experience. Besides the ten course dinners you might enjoy every once in a while, food markets and little street vendors selling all kinds of regional specialities have a lot to offer as well. There is probably more snacks and delicacies available than one can try in their lifetime.

There are things you might consider interesting but nothing too out of the ordinary for foreign eyes but there are also some real pearls - chicken feet, thousand-year-old eggs, duck heads.

What seems to top them all on the strange chart is Stinky Tofu or chòu dòufu (臭豆腐) – a popular dish in the region. For some ‘mysterious’ reason, however, foreigners, or laowai as we are known over there, tend to recoil from the idea of putting any of that in their mouth.

Eating Stinky, CHINESE FOOD, CHINESE CULTURE, TRADITIONAL, YUMMY, TOFUI was no exception in the beginning and by stinky, I mean really, really stinky, not just an unfortunate translation of a fragrant and lovely-smelling delicacy. No, it definitely does stink. It makes the whole street stench! Before I even heard about this dish, I used walk down a little food street by the West Lake in Hangzhou and always wondered about the horrific odour in the air.

Perhaps it is a convenient location where everyone came to relieve themselves, I was thinking. Soon I learnt that actually it is something that local people enjoy to eat that emits that specific ‘fragrance’ and, not being ones for flattery, the folk calls it by a name most suitable for it – stinky tofu.

Now I do feel a bit like an exception because just writing this piece already makes me miss that smelly dish. And to be fair, we do eat funny stinking things here in Europe too – A Chinese person might find the idea of having some Roquefort at least as repulsive.

On the web there are videos of both, Chinese trying out different types of cheese and laowai having a Stinky Tofu Challenge in Taiwan. The latter, similarly to the Ice Bucket Challenge nominates three chosen people to have a go at stinky tofu, or, if they fail, go and clean the Yilan Waiao beach. Try it for a challenge or just out of curiosity, a prevailing opinion among most foreigners seems to be ‘it was pretty gross but I kept on eating it’.

Eating Stinky, CHINESE FOOD, CHINESE CULTURE, TRADITIONAL, YUMMY, TOFUStinky tofu is believed to be a culinary legacy from Qing dynastic times. As it is popular in areas reaching thousands of kilometers there are always different regional variations available. There is a basic formula, however, which combines fermented milk, vegetable, such as mustard leaves, bamboo shoots, herbs, and meat into a brine. Some recipes even include dried shrimp.

The brine might ferment for up to several months until it is ripe enough, after which the tofu is soaked in it for one or two days. The end product can be enjoyed either hot or cold, steamed, stewed, barbecued, or, my own preference, deep-fried. Sichuanese mǎlà stinky tofu is a close second. It is mostly served with a dipping sauce which again is determined by the region – some prefer it with hoisin, some with sweet spicy sauce, others with numb and spicy mǎlà or garlic and chilly sauce.

However terrifying the first attempt to actually eat chòu dòufu might be, I do encourage everyone brave enough to try. ‘I thought it was kind of gross but kept on eating it’ and, after a while, even learned to appreciate that bowl of stench. Maybe I am just sentimental about travelling in China but I do agree with what is said about this dish – it tastes much better than it smells. Bon appétit!