Stinky Tofu is one of Hong Kong, Taiwan and China’s favourite snack foods and its smell wafts along their backstreets. For first time visitors the smell can be overpowering. The dish is served from hundreds of street food vendors, hawkers and small restaurants, and if you’re really unlucky, by the talented chef in the apartment next door. It’s very much an eat on the stick dish.
What Is Stinky Tofu?Traditionally, it is tofu that has been fermented in a mix of fermented milk and a vegetable, meat and fish based brine, or some combination of the three. For truly smelly tofu the brine should be weeks or even months old.
In reality, commercial concerns means the hawker stands where it is usually sold are supplied factory produced stinky tofu that has only been soaked in a brine that is just a few days old. Unless you eat the dish in a restaurant or from a hawker with ‘home-made’ stinky tofu, you’ll probably end up eating the factory version. This is at least less smelly.
How Is Stinky Tofu Served?The style of cooking and serving varies by country and region. In Hong Kong, Shanghai, Taiwan and Chinatown’s around the world it is generally deep fried in vegetable oil and served with a selection of sauces; such as chilli and soy. Other regional variations include steamed or stewed stinky tofu, sometimes served as part of a larger main dish or in a soup.
If you want to try, deep fried stinky tofu is the quintessential smell and taste experience. It’ll usually be served in small cubes skewered together and placed on a plastic plate, sometimes with pickled dumped on top.
Is It Really Stinky?Oh, yes, it absolutely stinks. Stinky Tofu is popular in Hong Kong, China, especially Shanghai, and Taiwan and when you walk along a street where it is being sold the smell will hit you immediately. Various critics and gourmets have tried to capture the smell in words, such as ‘old socks’, ‘gone off blue cheese’ and – quite simply –‘rotting garbage’. It’s incredibly potent and won’t have you licking your lips.
Even those who enjoy the flavour admit the smell is truly awful and that the attraction is in the taste. There is also a consensus amongst fans that the smellier the tofu, the tastier. Many tofu sellers gain a reputation for producing the smelliest tofu.
How Does It Taste?Thankfully, the taste is far less pungent than the smell, although few first timers will be holding out their hand for a second helping. These days, the taste can actually be a little bland, due to the short fermentation process, but either way you’ll want a heavy squirt of sauce; to give some flavour or mask any strong fermentation.
Like many Cantonese dishes, the texture is important and biting into stinky tofu is similar to biting into soft cheese. It should be golden and crisp on the outside from the deep frying and soft on the inside. It will also be dripping in grease and very, very hot on the inside. Once the tofu has been deep fried, the smell is a little less eye watering.