Thursday, April 2, 2009

Stinky tofu

You think you've seen everything, but in these parts there's always a surprise lurking round the next corner. Last night our hosts took a bunch of us to the famous Feng Chia night market in Taichung. It's a bustling (and utterly clean and safe) open-air market selling mostly snacks, clothes and shoes. As we walked along, I noticed an unpleasant sewage smell and was surprised, given how incredibly clean and sanitary everything is over here. It turned out to be a stall advertising "stinky tofu" in Chinese and English (I presume the English is a literal translation of the Chinese). This unexpected food product is basically tofu (soybean curd), normally one of the most bland, nutritious and otherwise harmless ingredients of Chinese food. But then it's fermented in a special way. And then fried and covered in a spicy sauce largely to hide the fact that, once fermented, it really really really stinks.

I find it hard to describe the smell but it's largely like having a sealed sewer pipe suddenly opened and the gases blasted into your face. Evidently just for this reason, it's rather popular in these parts. One member of our group, a German physicist who had not previously given any indication of such rashness, actually bought himself a helping and I was brave enough to taste a large piece. Turned out it was relatively harmless to eat, most of the "kick" being in the smell, though while I was eating it a whiff would occasionally and without warning punch me in the nostrils.

Five minutes later I had forgotten about it, but on our way back to the car we encountered another stinky tofu stall and the smell quite literally came back to me. It almost made me feel like getting sick, but at the same slowly fascinated me with its complexity. Today when talking to a bunch of young Japanese scientists at the Particle Physics School where I'm lecturing, I discovered they were all fans of stinky tofu and had observations to make about its potency, one of them claiming that in Taipei it was detectable only upto 5 metres from the stall but at Taichung it was much stronger and tended to spread as far as 10 metres!

I don't know why I'm blogging about it, but I can't seem to get the smell out of my head. I feel a certain desire to experience it again despite knowing it won't be pleasant. Seems like a metaphor for so many things in life!!


samudrika said...

Have you tried Durian fruit? The smell is from hell. There are several interesting descriptions of the Durian fruit smell at its Wikipedia page. (

Unknown said...

I spent a couple of years in Beijing and this was enough time to learn to appreciate the subtleties of stinky tofu - just. The acquisition is similar to that of strong cheese and certainly isn't for everyone. I don't know if they have it in Taiwan, but in Beijing the fermented mung bean milk is something that has to be sniffed to be believed - green, lumpy and smelling like rotten cabbage water passed through old socks. Acquired taste is a strange thing indeed!