Stinky Tofu: What Smells In Here?


Whew! What stinks? Ask that question in London or in Beijing, and you will get two different answers that actually have much in common. Now to be fair, there are plenty of things on the streets of Europe and China that stink! But I am talking about things of the delicious, edible variety. Yes, I am talking about food that is aged, fermented, or exposed to bacteria in order to produce a more complex, pungent flavor. Specifically, I am speaking of stinky tofu, one of China’s favorite street foods. In fact, as I write this article, my entire flat smells like a garbage dump, thanks to some fried stinky tofu that I bought on the street in Kunming, Yunnan Province.

I know that some people turn their nose up (quite literally) at Asian fermented tofu. But I parry the criticism by bringing to mind some of my favorite European cheese, like English Stilton, and French Grand Vieux de Boulogne, which was voted the stinkiest cheese in the world by cheese experts (yes, they exist). In any case, people around the world enjoy the rich, complex, pungent, piquant flavors of aged and fermented foods. And Asians are no exception.

In much of China, as here in Kunming, stinky tofu is a street food. The grand Asian tradition of street food is one not to miss out on if you are in the region. In most Chinese cities, as well as throughout Southeast Asia, vendors appear on the streets, selling prepared foods from wagons, baskets, or in little stalls. It is best not to wonder where the food came from or how it got there, but simply to eat and enjoy it. Stinky tofu in Kunming is usually served fried, then mixed in a combination of chili sauce, MSG, chopped green onions, and 折耳根 (zhe er gen in Mandarin Chinese), which is a small raw root that has a flavor reminiscent of raw fish. It is an incredibly powerful and robust combination of flavors.

Stinky tofu, like all tofu, is based on curdled soy. Stinky tofu takes the process a step further by introducing bacteria to the mixture by means of introducing it to milk or meat. There is no specific strain of bacteria that is used exclusively, as opposed to some European cheeses which must use strict guidelines in choosing the variety of fermenting microorganism. Fermented tofu is traditionally aged, as long as the producer wishes, in wooden barrels. As it ages, it takes on the tangy quality of fermentation. Color can vary from whitish-yellow, to green, to black. The street vendor from whom I bought mine simply fried it in oil, put it into a metal mixing bowl, and mixed in the condiments. Usually you take some wooden toothpicks to eat it, but I opted to bring mine home and eat it with chopsticks.

What is it about strong, tangy, fermented foods that makes them so appealing to so many people? My theory (a theory that I propose in relation to other sorts of flavor combinations as well), is that the more types of taste buds that can be triggered by a flavor, the richer and more wholesome the flavor experience. Complex flavors seem to do this well. It is also a very hearty sort of meal, something that seems to almost stimulate the mind to a similar state of complexity and intricate beauty. It’s almost like listening to Mozart versus Bach. Both are geniuses, but Mozart achieves a simple elegance, while Bach achieves a rather intricate, complex, madman sort of genius. To me, stinky tofu is the Bach of food.