Walking along the Tamsui river in Taipei, a pungent and repugnant smell smacked my nose. It was like a combination of rotting garbage and July subway train B.O. I recognized that unmistakeable aroma immediately: stinky tofu.
Stinky tofu, or chou dofu, is fermented tofu. Immigrants from mainland China brought it to Taiwan. Now, this humble dish is ubiquitous on the island. People love it. If you enjoy spicy food, imagine the feeling you get when you can’t stop eating even though it’s achingly hot. The pain, whether it’s in your gums or in your nose, feels wicked and addictive.
If you’ve had tofu, you know this bland block of boring (sorry tofu lovers) is in dire need of seasoning and punctuation. That’s where the brine comes in. It’s made from vegetables, meat and fermented milk that brew for months or, for the best versions, years.
Then the dry tofu is steeped inside, soaking up the brine like a sponge. The longer the tofu ferments, the more of the brine it absorbs which makes it softer and stinkier. That transforms the soybean curd into a smorgasbord of scents and flavors.
Speaking of flavors, let’s talk taste. Everyone focuses on the smell, but how does it taste?!?! Hold on, we’ll get there.
After smelling the stinky tofu on the street, my husband smiled and asked “Do you want to try it?”
Never one to back down from a challenge, I courageously said, “Uhhh, okay.”
We stood along the side of the road watching the squares of tofu simmer in the hot oil. A small crowd of patrons surrounded the stall, eagerly awaiting their smelly bounty.
The owner of the stall snatched the tofu out of the oil and used her chopsticks to create a hole on top. She stuffed each one with pickled vegetables. Then she basted the top with chili sauce, before sliding them into a paper wrapper and handing them off to us.
I nodded to my husband and our travel mate, Ken, before lifting the stick and biting into the tofu.
The golden, crispy outside of the fried tofu gave way to a warm creamy interior. Those pickled vegetables provided a crunchy yin to the tofu’s smooth yang. Finally, the sweet chili sauce was a refreshing counter to the sour flavors. My taste buds settled into happy harmony, despite the stench.
It wasn’t what I expected. Actually, I’m not sure what I expected. But the best words to describe the experience are balanced and surprising.
But adventurous eating isn’t the only reason to try stinky tofu. It’s also good for you! Stinky tofu is venerated in Taiwan for its health benefits. Like other fermented foods, say kombucha or kimchi, it contains probiotics. Hey, hipster foodies, here’s your new thing! The microbes can help your micro-biota (gut bacteria). It’s also said that stinky tofu increases the flow of chi, the life force of traditional Chinese medicine.
Finding stinky tofu in Taiwan won’t be hard. You follow the smell. It’s sold at night markets or roadside stands, where there’s plenty of aeration and breeze. Because you know, someone’s landlord would definitely evict them if they tried to cook this at home. And you can have it fried, grilled, steamed, or even served cold, which enhances the stink.
If you want a restaurant experience, check out the Dai Family House of Unique Stink in the Xinyi District of Taipei. The owner, Wu Hsu Pi-ying, is the stinky tofu don in Taipei. She’s been making her version for more than 30 years.