Durian is famous for its stench, but there is another food consumed in Asia that is guaranteed to stun the tourists with its pungent odor. Vietnam has its fish sauce, but China has stinky tofu. Even the adventurous types who like to eat authentic Chinese food will often recoil in horror when faced with a plate of stinky tofu.

Stinky tofu looks like any other tofu yet has a smell that has been described as "rotting sewage" and "old socks" by non-Chinese people. Stinky tofu (chou doufu which literally means "stinky tofu") is a very firm tofu that has been "marinated" in a noxious, putrid brine for several hours prior to cooking. This brackish brine is normally made from vegetable matter that has decayed beyond recognition. The microorganisms in the brine help give the tofu a spongy texture, but it's quite different from simply tofu that has gone bad.

And then there's the smell...it is truly an understatement to describe the final tofu product as "pungent." In open air markets where it is sold, one can smell the stinky tofu from several blocks away. In April of 2000, a Hong Kong stinky tofu vendor in the Mong Kok shopping district was fined for air pollution. The neighbors complained that any laundry left outside to dry had to be rewashed due to the intense smell it picked up. Cooking doesn't really affect the pungency of stinky tofu: if you order it in a restaurant in China, all the other customers there will eventually know.

Some people believe stinky tofu was developed from a preserving method to help tofu last through the winter. Other people say that it was an invention of cooks in the Chinese military to help soldiers withstand the cold and boost their yang--the masculine half of yin and yang.

I must confess when I saw (and smelled) stinky tofu for the first time while was visiting relatives in China as a child, I had the most common reaction. Namely, I thought everyone was completely insane for eating something that had an odor that made me run away in horror after one sniff. And despite the taunts from my cousins of being a "dumb girl raised on milk and white bread in America," I remained steadfast in my opinion for many years. Upon actually sampling it out of curiosity (or due to mild insanity), I was surprised to find that it doesn't taste all that different from normal tofu; most of the "taste" is in the smell. If you had a bad cold and couldn't smell, you might think you were eating some slightly salty tofu. It's very different from fermented bean-curd or sufu which taste very strong.

Stinky tofu really isn't all that far-fetched when you consider that eating aged moldy milk products is generally accepted in Western countries. And perhaps it's not so surprising that the smell of stinky tofu is closest to that of ripe, pungent blue cheese in my opinion. And just like there are aficionados of stinky cheese, Chinese people will criticize stinky tofu if it isn't smelly enough. The Hong Kong stinky tofu vendor who was fined for air pollution saw a dramatic increase in her business when the local news reported the incident.

How to Obtain Stinky Tofu

If you're living in China, you've probably seen (and smelled) it already. The uncooked form is sold at outdoor farmers' markets in most parts of mainland China. Just follow your nose. Also in Taiwan, fried stinky tofu appears in the night markets, hawked by street food vendors. It's a common and popular food found everywhere much like how hot dogs are in America.

Outside of China, real stinky tofu is an elusive beast to capture. Even in areas with a dense Chinese immigrant population, stinky tofu is served in very few restaurants. And even then it might only appear on the "Chinese menu" with no English translation. I've seen some non-Asian people attempt to order this dish and the reaction from the wait staff is always the same: a startled, wide-eyed look and the almost hushed words of, "Are you sure?" Be warned that if the smell doesn't make your hair stand on end, you aren't getting the real deal. Stinky tofu will never catch on like sweet and sour pork or fried rice. But it's just as well. The government health and sanitation inspectors in Western countries would probably faint if they ever found out how stinky tofu is made. And now that I've brought it up...

How to Make Stinky Tofu

Some members of my extended family in China had short stints at being street food vendors so I know the gory details of the process. But you really ought to think twice before trying this at home. E2 has too many other tasty and authentic Chinese recipes. This description of the process is meant to be more educational rather than practical. Even Chinese people don't make stinky tofu at home. You wouldn't try making Roquefort cheese at home, would you? If you want a creative tofu dish, try baked blackstrap shellac tofu.

1. Make the Brine

(Brace yourselves). Fill a large bucket with pure soy milk--not the supermarket type with sugar, calcium, and vanilla flavoring added. It must be pure soybeans and water. You can obtain it at Asian markets or make it yourself. Notice how white and pure it is? Good. Now let it sit outside for several weeks until it becomes putrid, moldy, and grey colored.

This isn't the only method to make the brine. For example, there is another method involving old wintermelon rinds that have been rotting away for over a year. Sometimes shrimp heads are also tossed in for added stink factor. Most stinky tofu vendors have their own "secret" recipe, but the rancid soy milk method is the most common currently in use in mainland China.

2. Marinate

Once your brine is prepared, add some salt to it. The amount depends on how salty you like your finished tofu to be. Get several slabs of very firm tofu and leave it in the brine for a few hours, depending on the desired "potency" of the finished tofu. Don't leave it in for more than six hours since it's actually possible to make stinky tofu too stinky.

3. Cook

Stinky tofu can be deep fried and served with hot sauce and pickled cabbage. Sometimes it is also served with pickles. Stinky tofu can also be simmered in a stew or chopped and used as normal tofu in a stir-fry.

References
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A58021-2003Oct21.html

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