FOR most people, a great, appetizing dish doesn’t just look appealing, it also smells fresh, fragrant and as fantastic as it will taste. But with some foods, the smell is the opposite of appealing.
In the West, it’s stinky cheeses like Limburger and Vieux-Boulogne, and in Southeast Asia its the durian fruit.
Smells bad, tastes great is how those who appreciate these foods would describe them as they have found the delicious taste that’s hidden behind the stinky odor.
In China, one of the foods that definitely falls under the “stinky” category is the popular street vendor snack chou doufu, or stinky tofu.
In night markets across China, stinky tofu dominates the food scene as its loved all over the nation.
Stinky tofu is said to been found rather accidentally by a man named Wang Zhihe who lived during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912). The vendor failed to sell all of his tofu on a hot summer day and decided to store it in a jar. He then forgot about it, but when he found the jar several months later, Wang opened it and found smelly cubes of tofu that had turned grey and greenish. Despite the color, Wang thought that the tofu tasted great. Friends and neighbors agreed — in fact, they couldn’t get enough of it.
Wang started to specialize in stinky tofu, expanded his workshops and, in late Qing Dynasty, Empress Dowager Cixi discovered the food and named it qing fang because of its square shape and greenish grey color.
Today, qing fang is sold under Wang Zhihe’s label in most supermarkets across China. The soft, cheese-like tofu cubes are often enjoyed as a spread on pancakes and steamed buns.
There are two main categories of stinky tofu — the fermented soft bean curd qing fang and dried stinky tofu.
The foul smell of the stinky tofu is a result of fermentation. For about 2 weeks, fresh tofu is kept in a smelly brine made with bamboo shoots, herbs, fermented soy beans, shiitake mushroom, salt, white spirits and more. Different types of stinky tofu have various recipes for the brine, and the temperature as well as humidity must be monitored to avoid toxins and contaminations during the fermentation process.
Deep fried is the most common way to prepare stinky tofu. Topped with hot chili sauce, the tofu cubes get juicy and crusty.
Though both Changsha, Hunan Province and Taiwan’s stinky tofu dish is fried, the method of making the tofu is different, thus Changsha’s raw stinky tofu cubes are black while Taiwan’s are white and fluffier. In Hong Kong, the deep fried stinky tofu is often topped with hoisin sauce.
In Kunming, Yunnan Province, locals’ favorite snack is stinky tofu grilled on an iron web above fire. The tofu is about the size of two sugar cubes and is made by tightly wrapping it in gauze.
Golden and crispy, the tofu is best enjoyed when it’s fresh off the grill with a dip. Locals prefer to gather around a stove in the evening and enjoy the stinky tofu with family and friends.
Mao doufu (毛豆腐) is a close relative of the common stinky tofu that originated in Anhui Province and was featured in the famous “Bite of China” documentary. Preserved in a humid environment, the tofu grows white villus and does not have the strong smell. The best way to cook it is to sear the tofu cubes in a hot pan and top it with chopped scallions, red pepper and garlic.
Stinky tofu has been on the food safety radar for many years as it can cause severe food poisoning.
People who have consumed homemade stinky tofu that carried clostridium botulinum, a strong, neurotoxic bacterium that can develop if the stinky tofu is not fermented properly.
But manufacturers, too, have been caught up in scandals. In 2014, stinky tofu manufactures in Changsha tried to accelerate the fermentation process and achieve the stink in a few hours.
This stinky tofu can be deadly, due to the endotoxins it has developed. Thankfully, color and smell will help you distinguish poisonous stinky tofu from the good ones.
Though stinky tofu is smelly, you should stay away from it if the smell is nauseous. If poisonous tofu is fried, it puffs up much more than safe tofu and stops to smell.