This post was written by Hugh Uzhazy
Hugh Ujhazy takes on the challenge of eating stinky tofu in the country that prides this odorous edible as a national dish and treasure.
Tofu. The butt of many a vegetarian-themed joke, this simple, tasty and creamy cake of culinary goodness is a critical component in a vast array of fine Asian dishes. An invitation from a Taipei resident during my trip there transformed into a tofu challenge – a single day dominated by tofu, culminating with the infamous stinky tofu.
Taipei is an old fishing village nestled within the mountainous northern tip of Taiwan island. Home of indigenous aborigines who had migrated from the mainland over 4,000 years ago, Taipei grew when the arrival of the Dutch in the 17th century brought many immigrating mainland Chinese. By the time Taiwan was ceded to Japan in 1895, the majority of Taiwan’s inhabitants were Han Chinese either by ancestry or assimilation. Following World War II in 1945, Japan surrendered Taiwan to the Republic of China (ROC). The People’s Republic of China took over the Chinese mainland in 1949 and the ROC moved its seat of government to Taiwan.
Taiwan island is characterised by the contrast between the eastern two-thirds – mostly rugged mountains running in five ranges from the northern to the southern tip of the island – and the flat to gently rolling Chianan Plains in the west that are home to most of Taiwan’s population.
When flying in to Taipei, the rugged, heavily treed backbone of the island is revealed. A taxi ride into the city rushes along multi-lane freeways between the steep slopes of the ever-present mountains. These mountains and hills make for easy escape from the city heat into the cooler highlands, but have the disadvantage of trapping the city haze, making the downtown atmosphere frequently muggy and hazy.
For many years, mainland China (180km away) and Taiwan managed an uneasy coexistence, though tensions have eased in recent years. Taiwan maintains a multi-party democracy with Taipei as the capital.
Shengku Old Street
But my purpose was not culture, geography, or micro-climates: it was all about tofu. My base was a quaint boutique hotel in downtown Taipei only 10 minutes walk from the iconic and skylinedominating Taipei 101 and my intended destination was a few kilometers to the east of the city: the home of Taipei tofu.
Shenkeng Laojie, or Shenkeng Old Street, is situated in the town of Shenkeng and can be accessed via taxi, bus, or MRT train. The street consists of rows of late 19th and early 20th century red brick shops with lattice windows, hanging eaves, and arcade-style covered walkways interspersed with ornate temples or European-Chinese fusion style mansions. It is picturesque and charming, especially in the cooler months of spring and autumn, and is overlaid with the tantalising smells emanating from numerous eateries and the hint of something a little bit gamey – stinky tofu.
Making And Tasting
Before I go any further, let me explain exactly what tofu is. Simply put, tofu is coagulated soymilk. You add a coagulant (Epsom salts, nigari, or gypsum) to the warm soymilk, leave to stand, and then press out enough water to get to the desired consistency. Press out a lot of water for firm tofu, a little for soft tofu. The secret of the Shenkeng tofu is their use of gypsum – giving a richer, slightly yellow tofu – and the way its cooked.
Beginning at the top of the street, we embarked on our tofu experience at Jin Da Ding, a stall that has been in place for over five decades and serves up piping hot barbecued tofu on bamboo skewers.
Soaked in the water, the green bamboo skewers impart a central sweetness to the tofu, complemented by the outside crispness of the skin as it reacts to the heat of the open flame. The traditional accompaniment of pickled shredded cabbage complemented the nutty tofu perfectly, and the still warm bamboo skewers were grasped in hand as we sucked the delicious smooth tofu off the sticks.
Raising the Stakes
Fifty meters on, Gu Zao Cuo marries chicken and tofu behind the doors of a three story mansion. This time tofu and chicken come deep-fried, with the slightly yellow chicken proving firm and moist while the tofu offered an oily tang.
It was here that a plate arrived that emanated a stronger smell and I came face to face with stinky tofu.
Stinky tofu starts life as good old fashioned regular tofu and then bathes in a brine of fermented milk, meat, or vegetables depending on the recipe. Recipes vary widely and are fiercely guarded. In its raw form, the pungent juices have soaked through the tofu and the smell is intense.
Stinky tofu can be served barbecued, stewed, braised, steamed, or deep fried, and cooking the stinky tofu (in this case it was stewed with spicy duck’s blood) reduces the in-your-face intensity of the raw material.
The first taste was like meeting chili for the first time – a mildly mind altering experience as taste buds realign to make way for something new in the vocabulary. There was a mild peppery taste and the intriguing texturaul combination of spongy tofu, gelatinous duck’s blood, and crunchy pieces of dried fish. It was… interesting.
For some contemporary recovery, Six Aunties Tofu (that’s the literal translation) at the Mansion of the Six Aunties offered me slabs of tofu with mushroom and shrimp served in a green soup of creamed Chinese mustard. The mustard leaves had a sharp, almost rotten taste which the delicate layer tofu cut through, muting the dish.
As the morning waned into late afternoon, the streets quieted a little and we approached number 122, the home of Wang Shui Cheng ands rumored to be the original tofu shop on the street. In this establishment, stewed tofu the color of a house brick was topped with mustard leaves and red chilies, offering a deeper peppery tang from the mustard leaves and a gentle burn from the chili all wrapped in the silky spongy texture of the stewed tofu.
Finally, as the sun began to set, a tofu ice cream akin to soft-serve finished the day nicely, until my guide offered me one final treat: a chance to meet stinky tofu in its natural habitat.
The Ultimate Test
As we wandered through the alleys of the Shilin Night Market, a small distant stall with a long line of customers pulled fiercely at the nose. As we approached the stall, the smell became one like overripe durian mixed with vegetable market floor. As the wind changed, it took a moment for me to realise we had only been upwind, and the full force of the tofu assaulted my senses.
This stall outside a temple and near a make-shift Chinese opera karaoke stage offered deep fried stinky tofu. We purchased our small brown cubes of tofu and retreated strategically. The tofu maintained a slight odor blush but the vibrant flavour of the raw tofu had been replaced with a deeper, richer, peppery smell. I popped a cube in my mouth and enjoyed how the flavour layers of the tofu were complemented by a light chili tang. It was the fitting end to the tour of tofu.
Source: The Expat July 2013
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