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Decades ago, stinky tofu was a military staple for soldiers patrolling China's borders. As wars ended and Taiwan's night-market culture developed, so did stronger, spicier and more diverse flavors of stinky tofu. It is now a famous Taiwanese specialty. Dai's House of Stinky Tofu in Taipei, Taiwan is a world famous eatery, specializing in vegetarian fermented stinky tofu (no shrimps in the brine) with brine containing amaranth, mustard leaf, bamboo shoots and more than 10 kinds of Chinese herbs.
Like the most fermented European cheeses, stinky tofu makes an unforgettable impression; non-native eaters find it either exotically tasty or unbearably repugnant. Twice-fermented stinky tofu, chou doufu ru, makes even stinky tofu smell good. Even many native eaters can't stand the smell.
To make modern stinky tofu, fresh tofu marinates for a couple of hours in a brine of vegetables, tofu and dried shrimp that has been fermenting for six months or more. Correctly made, the brine produces a unique rather lacy texture in the tofu, and the insides taste mild and custardy. The typical open fermentation methods allow for easy contamination of the developing brine. Impatient venders have been arrested for faking stinky tofu by adding gunpowder, rotten fish and other inedible additions to their brine.
Once it has been correctly fermented, the stinky tofu is cut into bite-size squares for cooking. The tofu may be steamed but is most commonly deep fried. A typical dish would be deep-fried squares of the fragrant tofu drizzled with black vinegar, with chopped black beans and kimchi sprinkled over the top. Connoisseurs of stinky tofu say the magic is in the topping, which is made of soy sauce, vinegar and chili oil. If you get the opportunity, try mixing these four sauces into your own blend: soy sauce, garlic and radish pastes and chili oil.
Stinky tofu is a popular study topic among Chinese chemistry students. Tsinghua University's bio-science research lab examined a sample of Dai's stinky tofu and discovered more than 15 kinds of active bacteria swimming around in it, similar to the types of colonization found in yogurt.
Twenty-one aromatic chemical compounds have been identified in deep-fried traditional stinky tofu samples collected in Hong Kong. compounds were found. Aldehydes (9) were the major chemical class in which the saturated (8) compounds dominated. Only one unsaturated aldehyde was found. Other classes included alcohols (5), acids (4), furans (2) and ketone (1). The scientists state,"... aroma values of decanal, 1-butanol, pentanoic acid and hexanoic acid were among the highest. They generally possess unpleasant, medicinal, putrid, fecal and rancid odors."
Should you get to Taipei, here is the address for Dai's restaurant:
Dai's House of Stinky Tofu
Address: 145-1, Nanjing E. Rd., Sec. 5
Telephone: (02) 2760-7652.
Open: 11:30am to 1am.
Average meal: NT$150 (2003).
Details: No English menu available. Visa and MasterCard accepted.
I have had several requests for instructions on how to make stinky tofu. This is an unknown topic- because the brine has to age six months and its smell is so strong, stinky tofu is not fermented at home. Here is a recipe for an unfermented but garlicky Korean dish, "Smelly Spicy Korean Tofu a.k.a. Tubu Bokkum-Bap", which may satisfy your taste for the exotic.
Smelly Spicy Korean Tofu AKA Tubu Bokkum-BapThis is a spicy hot dish of tofu and sauteed vegetables, in a hot pepper & garlic sauce, served over rice.
4 servings over rice
3 tablespoons oil
Saute garlic, carrots, and onion in oil for several minutes in a large pan, until the onions are just golden.