To say the least, we have had some very interesting culinary experiences thus far here in Taiwan. The vast majority of these traditional Taiwanese treats have been quite tasty. We have learned to genuinely enjoy rice cookies, steamed dumplings, octopus and duck heart. There have been a handful of experiences, however, that left a little to be desired. The most intense of these experiences was most definitely our encounter with stinky tofu.
Stinky tofu is the actual name for this food and it is an incredibly accurate name for this Taiwanese fare. Stinky tofu is one of the vilest smells my nostrils have ever encountered. For the first month or so that Chris and I were here, we didn’t realize that “that smell” was not something that we stepped in walking through the park, nor was it wafting from a passing garbage truck. No, what we were smelling was actually something intended for human consumption. The odor produced by the frying of stinky tofu is a pungent mélange of canine fecal matter and vomit. From many yards away, it reaches up and grabs your nostrils, forcing the unexpecting victim to heed its presence. There is actually a street near our apartment that has several carts selling this “comestible”. Though “Stinky Tofu Street”, as we have deemed it, is usually the shortest way home, we avoid it at all cost for fear of passing out from the stench.
To help you picture this experience, let me give you a quick Stinky Tofu for Dummies explanation of how this is made. First, one takes a bucket of unsweetened soy milk and drops in a few vegetables, dried shrimp, and spices. This concoction is left outside (in the tropical heat of Taiwan) for anywhere from a few weeks to six months or more. You can tell it is ready by its moldy, gray appearance. After this brine has been prepared, a firm tofu is marinated in it for several hours. The tofu cannot be left in the brine for more than six hours as this would make the tofu “too stinky.” After it has been adequately marinated, the tofu is fried and cut into squares. It is typically served with a mound of pickled cabbage and a dollop of hot sauce.
The thing about this food is that it is tremendously popular among the Taiwanese. Stinky tofu stands are as common in Taipei as hot dog vendors are in New York City. Of the scores of Taiwanese people I have polled on the matter, only one has admitted that he doesn’t actually like this delicacy. Wanting to get the full Taiwanese experience, I vowed that I would, one day, try this putrid smelling item. One of our American friends from school tried it and reported back that it wasn’t as bad as it smelled and that he actually enjoyed the flavor, thus bolstering my courage to give it a go. When my brother and sister-in-law visited over our spring break, we knew that it was time to try it.
The night came when we were at a night market in Hualien. Night markets (like flea markets that are open at night) are known for their food vendors and are popular places to find stinky tofu. We had someone direct us to the most popular hawker of the stuff and we sat down to prepare ourselves. As he started frying the brine-soaked squares, the well-known odor penetrated our noses. We were actually going to do it. We were going to eat stinky tofu. After a few minutes of cooking, he pulled it out of the oil, cut it into bite size pieces, heaped on the pickled cabbage, and poured some hot sauce on the side of the plate. As the hot, stinky pile was placed in front of us, we pulled out our chopsticks ready to conquer our fear. Counting down, Harrison, Ali, Chris and I chose a square to taste and into our mouths they went. Let me be the one to tell you. Stinky tofu tastes exactly how it smells. I have a pretty high tolerance for strange or bad tasting food, but this thing I had trouble swallowing. It was a putrid, nasty mess of foul, rancid, spongy goo. I have tried to think of something worse that I have put in my mouth, but I couldn’t think of anything.
The worst thing about our experience is that now every time I smell the acrid odor of this abominable excuse for food, I can actually taste it again. The day after our experience at the Hualien night market, we smelled stinky tofu and someone commented, “You know, it smells a little like olives.” To which my brother Harrison added, “Yeah, like olives on a corpse.” I thought it was an accurate description.