Text and images by Catherine Ling @ Makansutra
If smells could kill, stinky tofu probably would have claimed many lives by now. It’s one of the only two foods that defeated Andrew Zimmern of a bizarre foods TV program that’s seen him downing brains and bugs all over the world. Yes, he gagged and spat it out.
But stinky tofu has many fans, many of whom like it without fuss. It’s extremely popular in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China. The fermented tofu is served so many ways – deep-fried, stewed, steamed, added to soups, and even raw. It’s doused with sauces of all manner (chili, sweet, garlic) and sometimes with pickled vegetables. How could something so putrid-smelling incite appetite and even cravings? Are we missing out on something if we haven’t yet braved ourselves to taste it? More importantly, is it worth the risk?
For me, stinky tofu was an acquired taste. I didn’t take to it immediately, and it was only part of an office food challenge that I reluctantly tried it. But now, I am happily on the side of the stinky tofu lovers.
Here’s how I did it, and maybe you can too.
STEP ONE: First, get over your fear of the smell, and take a bite. I first described the smell as “air-conditioning blowing over a latrine overflowing with stale diarrhoea”. As you can imagine, it took a LOT of courage to take the first bite. But do it, and give it a chance.
You’ll find that the taste is surprisingly mild and devoid of stench. It’s almost like stepping into another room, and the smell is only a hazy remnant. If anything, the foul smell morphs into something that enhances the taste of the tofu, the way the blue strains of Roquefort flavour the cheese.
My first bite showed me it was all right. But I still didn’t crave it.
STEP TWO: Don’t look up how it’s made! You might not eat sausages too, if you saw how they are made.
STEP THREE: Keep smelling it. There will be variations to the stench even, some more like garbage trucks, some more like rotting
But as I kept smelling the thing, I started getting used to it. Having a friend rave about it also helped. In Taiwan, the smell is not as strong, so it’s more approachable.
STEP FOUR: Take another bite. It’s helpful to start with the milder ones, like in Taiwan. Deep-fried versions are also easier to like than stewed or soupy ones. Eat the whole dish. But bring mints if you intend to be kissing or conversing with others at close quarters.
If you’ve managed to come this far, I think you’re pretty close to either getting some sort of appreciation for it. Or perhaps you’ll have decided you’ll never eat any more stinky tofu. But just wait. Some day in the future, this fermented dish will come and entice you again.