Stinky tofu is one of the most popular snack foods in Hong Kong, China and Taiwan – and its smell will probably be a memorable part of any trip. For first time visitors the stink can be overpowering – and catching a waft of it down a Beijing back street is likely to have your eyes watering. The dish is served from hundreds of street food vendors, hawkers and small restaurants.
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 mean the hawker stands where it is sold often stock factory produced stinky tofu that has only been soaked in a brine for just a few days. Unless you eat the dish in a restaurant or from a hawker advertising ‘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 chilli and soy sauce. Other regional variations include steamed or stewed stinky tofu, sometimes served as part of a larger main dish or in a soup.
Deep fried stinky tofu is considered the classic dish. It’ll usually be served in small cubes skewered together and placed on a plastic plate, sometimes with pickles dumped on top.
Is It Really Stinky?
Oh, yes, it absolutely stinks. 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 flavor 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 are unlikely to be holding out their hand for a second helping. Shorter fermentation times mean some stinky tofu can actually taste a little bland. Spray some soy or chilli sauce on top to mask the smell and give it some flavor.
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. And you don’t want to eat it cold – if you think the smell is bad hot then just try biting down on cold stinky tofu.
Where to eat
If you’re in Hong Kong, Shanghai or Taiwan, you shouldn’t have any difficulty finding stinky tofu, just follow your nose. Stinky tofu is mostly sold from open-air hawker stalls. One popular destination is late night markets, such as Temple Street in Hong Kong.
Elsewhere, your local Chinatown will almost certainly have somewhere that serves this stinky dish.
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