AS even the most unimaginative would expect, “stinky tofu” (臭豆腐) is a fermented tofu with a strong odor. It is a popular street snack in Hunan, Jiangsu and Zhejiang, where it is found at night markets and roadside stands.
Even its fans admit that the odor of stinky tofu reminds them of sewage or a garbage dump. The tofu’s flavor is equally unforgettable. Some have compared it to the taste of blue cheese, and it is said the stronger it smells, the better it tastes.
Now Shenzheners can judge for themselves. Three stinky tofu shops under the Wangtuozi chain have opened in Futian, Nanshan and Bao’an. Fans say the street snack has gotten an upgrade with improved quality and dining environment.
The Wangtuozi chain, selling Zhejiang-style fried stinky tofu, is already proving popular here.
“Generally, wide regional and individual variations exist in the manufacturing and preparation processes,” said the Futian chain store owner surnamed Shuai.
He said that the Zhejiang-style fried stinky tofu is distinguished by its golden color, while Hunan-style stinky tofu is usually black.
All of them start out as regular tofu. After open fermentation for several days in a brine of fermented vegetables, dried shrimp, amaranth, mustard leaf, bamboo shoots and Chinese herbs, the tofu develops a fetid smell, with sponge-like structure inside. The fermentation traditionally takes several months.
Once it has been correctly fermented, the stinky tofu is cut into bite-size squares for cooking. It can be eaten cold, steamed, stewed or, most commonly, fried. It is often accompanied by chili sauce.
Connoisseurs 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 with garlic and radish pastes.
Unfortunately, the typical open fermentation methods allow for easy contamination of the brine. Also, many local street venders in Shenzhen have been seized for faking stinky tofu by adding gunpowder, rotten fish and other questionable ingredients to the brine. But this tofu has its loyal following. “Many people can’t quit eating this popular street snack. We see great potential in producing licensed stinky tofu,” Shuai said.
Like yogurt and sauerkraut, the stinky tofu fermentation process creates a number of beneficial bacteria and a rather potent vat of volatile but innocuous alcohols, acids, aldehydes, furans and other chemical compounds.
No wonder this treat is a hard sell for first-time tasters. “Forget about the smell and just try it,” said Shuai. “While it smells evil, stinky tofu is harmless and delicious.”
One order (5 yuan) with 10 pieces is plenty. Customers can also order green tea or cold beverages to wash down the stinky tofu.