Funky FOOD

“Smells smelly, tastes tasty,” so the say­ing goes. Sun Ji­ahui finds out ex­actly what that means

The World of Chinese - - News - 人间美味,不止酸甜苦辣咸


Once upon a time, some bean curd rot­ted in a jar, and a mer­chant tasted it—thus a new del­i­cacy was born. From pun­gent tofu to stinky spinach to slightly de­cayed fish, Sun Ji­ahui ex­plores re­gional vari­a­tions of smelly foods and ex­plore the fas­ci­na­tion with the funky in Chi­nese cook­ing


With Chi­nese cui­sine, you can al­ways ex­pect a riot of taste: “Spicy in the east, sour in the west, sweet in the south, salty in the north,” as they say. Yet our taste buds are still not con­tent even with th­ese fla­vors. Some­times, we need a lit­tle bit of some­thing else. Some­thing spe­cial; some­thing…stinky.

The most fa­mous in this genre is Stinky Tofu (臭豆腐ch7ud7ufu). With many peo­ple scared away by its unique smell—not to men­tion its name—loyal fans in­sist this snack is some­thing that “smells smelly, but tastes tasty.” Oth­ers say it reeks like rot­ting meat in sum­mer. It’s made by soak­ing tofu in a fer­mented brine of milk, veg­eta­bles, and meat. Some­times, Chi­nese herbs, dried fish and shrimp are added. The brine is made first and left to fes­ter for weeks, some­times months, re­sult­ing in a pu­trid, rot­ting brew. Just as one’s senses can take no more, tofu is added, for fur­ther fer­men­ta­tion. Many pro­duc­ers will choose to re­use a suc­cess­ful batch of brine just to recre­ate the same pun­gent fla­vor.

Meth­ods for cook­ing the fer­mented tofu vary greatly by re­gion, but can be roughly cat­e­go­rized into “soft” and “hard” va­ri­eties. Soft stinky tofu, also called “green­ish cube (青方),” is popular in north­ern ar­eas like Bei­jing: Wang Zhihe (王致和) Stinky Tofu is the most rep­re­sen­ta­tive.

Leg­end has it this ver­dant va­ri­ety was in­vented in the Qing dy­nasty by a Bei­jing tofu seller called Wang Zhihe, who made a liv­ing hawk­ing curd af­ter fail­ing his im­pe­rial exam. One day, Wang had a bunch of left­over tofu; rather than throw it away, Wang cut the tofu into small cubes and put them into an earthen jar (leg­end does not ex­plain why). A few days later, a cu­ri­ous, pos­si­bly drunk Wang opened up the jar for a look. He found the tofu had turned green and smelled like a sock, so he tasted it (again, leg­end does not ex­plain why). It was, in his es­ti­ma­tion, quite de­li­cious, so from that mo­ment on, he de­cided to sell that “stinky green­ish tofu” as a com­mod­ity in his store. Even to­day, you can still find Wang Zhihe

Stinky Tofu sealed in glass jars in su­per­mar­kets across China.

South­ern folks, though, pre­fer the hard stuff—tofu, that is. The Chang­sha ver­sion, hail­ing from Chair­man Mao’s home prov­ince of Hu­nan, is the most popular. It is black, deep fried, and heav­ily sea­soned with chili. Huo­gong­dian (火宫殿) is the most well-known snack street for Chang­sha stinky tofu; in­deed, Mao used to be a loyal cus­tomer. The “Bei­jing School” writer Wang Zengqi (汪曾祺) re­called an anec­dote about this in his fa­mous food es­say “Five Tastes”: When Mao was young, he of­ten went to Huo­gong­dian to catch a taste of its tofu. Af­ter he be­came the leader of China, he re­vis­ited the shop and com­mented: “Huo­gong­dian’s stinky tofu is still de­li­cious.” As this was dur­ing the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion, Mao’s in­nocu­ous com­ment was im­me­di­ately tran­scribed on the wall of Huo­gong­dian, with a note re­fer­ring to it as “the high­est di­rec­tion.”

While tofu is the reign­ing fa­vorite of funk, there are plenty of chal­lengers. The hum­ble veg­etable, for ex­am­ple: In Hangzhou, “Shaox­ing Three Stinky Food (绍兴三臭)” refers to stinky Chi­nese spinach stems, and stinky white gourd (OK, and stinky tofu as well), which all go great with a bowl of rice. They’re pro­duced by soak­ing the veg­eta­bles in stinky brine for days, then steam­ing them right be­fore eat­ing. Lo­cal peo­ple say that, of the three, the spinach stems are the head­i­est: Apart from the smell, the tex­ture is like jelly, which makes this dish even harder to ac­cept for rook­ies.

When it comes to Huizhou, An­hui prov­ince, though, that scent in your nos­trils is com­ing from the fish. In The Analects, Con­fu­cius told us: “If the fish and meat get rot­ten, don’t eat it.” But ap­par­ently, An­hui peo­ple are pre­pared to re­pu­di­ate the sage, if Smelly Man­darin Fish (臭鳜鱼) is any­thing to go by. The dish took off af­ter it was fea­tured in the CCTV doc­u­men­tary se­ries A Bite of China, giv­ing the acrid fish the re­spectabil­ity out­side Huizhou that it badly needed. As with our pre­vi­ous con­tenders, mak­ing Smelly Man­darin Fish re­quires a fer­men­ta­tion rit­ual in brine at a tem­per­a­ture of around 28 de­grees Cel­sius for sev­eral days, un­til the skin starts to raise a smell. Then the fil­lets are shal­low fried and braised in soy sauce, so the flesh is fresh and ten­der.

Un­like oth­ers on this list, this del­i­cacy is only around 200 years old, which makes it young by Chi­nese stan­dards. Back in the day, An­hui fish­er­men in the Yangtze River used to keep their fish from de­cay­ing on the way home by rub­bing the skin with salt and car­ry­ing them in wooden buck­ets. The fish stayed fresh even af­ter the week­long jour­ney to An­hui, with only the skin get­ting a bit whiffy. Nowa­days, with trans­port and food preser­va­tion no longer a prob­lem, the smelly salted fish re­mains a char­ac­ter­is­tic dish of this re­gion.

If you don’t fancy any of the above, you should at least try Snail Rice-flour Noo­dles (螺蛳粉), a Li­uzhou, Guangxi prov­ince spe­cialty that’s prob­a­bly the least freaky of this bunch. The noo­dles are boiled in soup of river snails, pork bone, pick­led veg­eta­bles, dried bean curd, and fresh green veg­eta­bles, with peanuts and chili added to the re­sults. But the most es­sen­tial in­gre­di­ent of au­then­tic Li­uzhou Snail Rice-flour Noo­dles are pick­led sour bam­boo shoots, made from fresh bam­boo shoot that are, yes, fer­mented and serve as an ap­pe­tizer or side dish. But it’s the sour bam­boo shoot that gives the whole noo­dle dish its unique fla­vor.

Though th­ese dishes are fa­mous through­out China, stink lovers are still a mi­nor­ity. So, as an un­writ­ten rule, if you want to or­der a stinky food at din­ner, make sure that ev­ery­one around you is down with it. If your or­der passes the smell test, en­joy and count your­self one of the eat­ing elites.

Snail Rice-flour Noo­dles

Fried Stinky Tofu

Smelly Man­darin Fish

Soft Stinky Tofu

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