Ah, stinky tofu… how can I explain the putrid but widely adored fermented tofu dish that has won the hearts of millions to become the unofficial national snack of Taiwan?
First, let me tell you a story about stinky tofu. When I was about 12 years old, my mother, longing for the pungent dish of her youth, decided to make her own stinky tofu in the microwave. Don’t ask me why my mother, an otherwise excellent cook, would use a microwave to cook anything, but whatever her reasons (perhaps she couldn’t wait another minute for her stinky tofu fix and wanted the quickest method possible), she did it and I was outraged.
I have an extremely keen sense of smell. That, and my vivid emotional memory, sometimes makes life rather painful. So you can imagine me at age 12, with a probably even keener sense of smell and filled with what my therapist has since termed “internalized racism,” being assaulted with the overwhelming stench of some weirdo food from some weirdo island.
The smell seemed to fill (nay, infect!) every corner of our fairly sizable suburban home. I howled, I screamed, I writhed around on the wall to wall carpeting, demanding to know how she could do such a thing. What if one of my friends were to come visit? Our home was already perpetually filled with the smells of strange dishes that weren’t lasagna. It never smelled quite “clean” to me the way my friends’ houses did: that sterile, deodorized non-smell with perhaps a hint of their mother’s perfume or apples and cinnamon, which were magically baking in some invisible oven.
What if one of my friends were to come over and smell what can only be described as rotting garbage and sweaty gym socks and I’d have to explain that in that weird country where my mother is from, they actually eat the stuff. I’d be humiliated. And in the microwave of all places… where I made my bright red boxes of Ore Ida french fries after school every day… that safe haven, my own little American embassy in an otherwise strange land, where just across the way, dried fungus and other enemies were smelling up the pantry.
I found a bottle of Lysol and started spraying the inside of the microwave with as much force as a fireman hosing down a five alarm fire. Using one hand to cover my assaulted nostrils and the other to mount my defense, I sprayed. I sprayed and I sprayed. First the kitchen, then every room in the house, no place was safe. The more I sprayed, the more the stinky tofu seemed to laugh defiantly and stink even more. It was as though the stinky tofu enjoyed the challenge and increased its stink just to show how powerful it really was.
In the end, exhausted from all the screaming, crying and spraying, I admitted defeat. The end result of my efforts was that the house just smelled like stinky tofu + Lysol. I made my mother promise never to make it again. If she loved me at all, if she cared for me even a little bit, she’d never subject me to the horror of stinky tofu ever again. She kept her promise.
15 years later, I’ve journeyed to her homeland and I decided now that I’m older and wiser with a more sophisticated palate and open mind, I should try the dish that’s so famous in Taiwan. Last night, I went with my uncle, cousin and my parents’ friends to Kiki, one of four restaurants owned by singer-turned-TV-host Lan Xin Mei that feature Sichuan cuisine fused with Taiwanese flavors, and I was determined to try stinky tofu once and for all.
There are two kinds of stinky tofu: steamed and deep-fried. The steamed kind is stinkier and I decided that if I was going to try it, I should really go for it. As my friend Ryan and I like to say, usually right before we make a potentially disastrous decision on a film set, “Go big or go home.”
Before the stinky tofu made its pungent grand entrance at our table, we drank Kiki’s famed sour plum juice. I’m still not sure how I feel about it. If you’ve never had it, you should brace yourself. I thought it would be vaguely like iced tea with a hint of plum, but it’s like nothing I’ve ever had or can describe. It must be one of those tastes that doesn’t exist in the western palate.
We also had several really excellent dishes. My favorite was the egg-fried tofu: perfectly soft tofu that has a gossamer coating of egg and is very gently fried to a golden brown and manages to preserve the silky consistency while giving it that delicious fried dim sum-y taste without any of the greasiness.
“Fly Head”: Chinese chives (also known as “wine vegetable” because of its similarity in taste to wine), red chilies, minced pork and black beans.
We also had braised chili beef, leafy greens cooked in fermented bean curd and sea bass covered in some sort of dried bean.
But then came the moment of truth: my old nemesis Stinky Tofu arrived. We ordered it in mala sauce, a typical spicy Sichuan sauce comprised of chili peppers, garlic and dou ban jiang , a paste made from fermented broad beans, soybeans, salt, rice, and spices. Because a fan was mercifully blowing the air towards the opposite side of the table, I didn’t feel the full brunt of the stinkiness.
It seemed pretty harmless at first glance. It was just tofu. What was the big deal? I took a piece and as I started to bring it closer to my nose, the rotting garbage and sweaty gym socks came back to me. I started to feel dizzy, I thought I might vomit. I think I even gagged a little. “Smells disgusting, but tastes wonderful,” my mother’s friend said. I didn’t want to miss out on one of Taiwan’s most famous delicacies, I didn’t come this far to chicken out now, I thought, so I plugged my nose with one hand and put the dreaded thing in my mouth with the other.
This isn’t so bad, I thought. It tastes… like tofu. I decided to unplug my nose while I finished chewing. But then I started to smell the rotting garbage and sweaty gym socks again and I could feel my stomach turning. I swallowed it quickly, but its effects lingered. I felt slightly ill for the rest of the meal and my appetite was completely gone. Stinky tofu could be a new diet trick, the best appetite suppressant ever. Try a bite and you won’t want to eat another thing for hours.
When I came home, I spoke to my mother on Skype and told her I finally tried stinky tofu. She could tell by the defeated tone in my voice that I didn’t like it. She said it was okay. In fact, the last time she was in Taipei she had some and didn’t really like it either. It was different from when she was a child, not as good as she remembered it.
Maybe stinky tofu is just a metaphor. Maybe what my mother was trying to do 15 years ago was just microwave her way back to a place she missed, a place that probably never existed. Maybe it wasn’t the tofu I found disgusting but my own inability to fit in anywhere.
Okay, no. Stinky tofu is real and it’s gross, but at least now I can say I tried it.