It can be all too easy to stick to your culinary comfort zone in Shanghai, be it KFC or gōngbǎo jīdīng. As a challenge to break these habits and avoid the rut, every few weeks Shanghaiist will explore one of the more intriguing options out of China’s endless array of curious cookery. Although bizarre to most Western palates, these oft-avoided edibles usually boast unique medicinal properties, nutritional benefits, and intriguing culinary histories. We’ll explore for you where they came from and where you can sample these rare eats for yourselves.
STINKY TOFU (臭豆腐, chòu dòufu)
Regions of use: China, Southeast Asia (but not as prevalently)
Tasted at: Hao You (好友汇土菜馆) // 2/F, 657 Dingxi Lu near Fahuazhen Lu (above the Tesco Express) (定西路657号2-3楼, 近法华镇路) // Closest Metro Stop: Jiaotong University (交通大学) Line 10
We expats have all experienced it. It’s late afternoon and you’re exiting the metro into a flock of hawkers; the lady with a bazillion different notebooks, the cart with cages of baby rabbits and birds, and if it’s winter, the yam guy. Then, before you even see the culprit, you encounter a stench that makes you wonder how a beached whale carcass managed to roll this far inland. You spot the source, an idle square of stinky tofu in a wok across the street. And even as someone who professes “don’t knock until you try” and “don’t be an ugly tourist,” when I first smelled stinky tofu two years ago, I just about blurted out, “who the f*** would eat this stuff?”
The Middle Stinkdom
The black variety from Hunan
As it turns out, a good chunk of the globe would as stinky tofu is eaten in Southeast Asia, Taiwan and of course, China, where it sees surprising diversity. In Shanghai we associate stinky tofu with the fried golden hunks with chili sauce sold on the street, but it’s also enjoyed steamed with minced meat or seafood, and comes in different colors. Zhejiang province is famous for its red fermented tofu, colored red due to the addition of red rice during the pickling process, while Hunan province sports a black variety, which you can buy in Shanghai’s Qibao Old Town.
Stinky tofu was allegedly invented by a young Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) scholar, who wanted to open a tofu shop in the summer, but fretted that the heat would spoil the tofu. His solution was to preserve it in a jar with salt water, but he unfortunately forgot to take out the tofu until winter, whereupon it had become moldy. A frugal man, the scholar tasted it instead of tossing it, and concluded that it was scrumptious.
While this story is probably as much myth as it is fact, preserving goods was a major concern throughout most of human history and pickling was a popular method of extending a food’s shelf life through droughts and harsh winters. Pickled items in China range from cabbage to eggs to oysters.
Putting the stink in stinky tofu
Raw stinky tofu
Stinky tofu’s legendary pungency comes from its fermentation/brining, which consists of inoculating it with mycelium spores, which incubate for three days and grow into a smelly white mold. The tofu is then submerged in brine with other ingredients like dried seafood or meat, and allowed to ripen for six months, much like cheese. In fact, some scholars posit that the Chinese adopted the aging process from cheese-making neighbors like the Mongolians, who enjoyed guzzling fermented mare’s milk.
Sniffing it out
Stinky tofu may be the easiest exotic eat to track down in Shanghai; just inhale deeply through your nose and follow the obvious scent trail to the nearest street vendor. But if you want a more “refined” stinky tofu experience, Shaoxing Fandian and Hao You have got you covered. Hao You’s stinky tofu (45RMB), a Shanghai country dish of steamed tofu, fermented amaranth, chilies, and garlic cloves, is so odorous that it makes the fermented fish at Wan’an Nongjia smell like a rose bathed in Febreze.
On my first visit to Hao You, I certainly wasn’t looking forward to tasting that stench. The bowl arrived and I swiftly snagged a gray-white tofu cube, which I felt resembled a hunk of dead shark in both look and smell, and basically hurled it down my throat.
And it was damn tasty, like a spongier blue cheese without as much bite, and a lot milder than its smell. As I dunked the last tofu bite into the chili oil until it glistened, I wished I’d had a couple more pieces.
Stinky tofu is no weirder than cheese, and if you do like smelly cheeses, you’ll probably enjoy it a whole lot. Just make sure to stock up on Tic Tacs before you go.
Last time on Off the Beaten Palate: Yak penis
See a complete list of our Off the Beaten Palate series here.
Benjamin Cost is Shanghaiist’s Food Editor. Email tips, recommendations, and news updates on Shanghai’s dining scene to [email protected]