It’s time for a science experiment! In a large plastic bag, collect the following: the solid bits from the kitty litter, or the equivalent output from Fido, a week’s worth of table scraps, some wilted cabbage (not lettuce), whatever juice is left at the bottom of a few cans, and a pound or two of firm tofu.
Tie the bag loosely and stick it under the sun, preferably somewhere rats or raccoons can find it and burrow around a bit. If it can be managed, encourage a few cockroaches and flies to take up residence. If the daytime temperature is at least in the 70s or above, leave the bag out for two months, but if the temperature is less than this, leave it for at least four months.
After this period, remove the tofu to a plate, being sure to scrape off anything stuck to it. Discard whatever can move on its own. Save the pieces of cabbage to sprinkle delightfully over the tofu and return everything else to the bag—which can be used repeatedly for future batches.
We have just made chou dofu, literally, stinky tofu, a delicacy in Taiwan.
Our recipe only differs from the traditional in its choice of spices and its selection of critters: ours are macroscopic, whereas they usually can’t be seen by the naked eye. A dozen of more species of bacteria are commonly found in this fermentation factory, and even these differ from purveyor to purveyor, since everybody touts their own concoction.
It is impossible to adequately describe the smell of stinky tofu. It might help to learn that when I tried to take a picture of a dish of it, the fumes ate through my camera lens (here is a rendition). Far afar, it looks just like a plate of ordinary tofu, but up close, visible wavy smell lines distort objects seen through it in much the same way that heat from a desert road creates shimmering.
I know what you’re thinking, because I was the same way. “Aw, it’s probably nowhere near as bad as he says. At worst, I bet it has a manly, character-building odor that couldn’t dent virile specimens such as myself.”
You imagine it’s going to be like those fast food commercials that advertise “spicy” burgers by showing a guy’s head explode in flame after slipping the bun between his teeth, but when you actually try one there is, at most, only a slight hint of heat. Incidentally, this proves the rule in food commercials: whatever aspect they emphasize is the opposite of what is true. Spicy burgers without heat, “delicious” diet colas which taste like acrid, chemical soup, and so forth.
But stinky tofu lives up to it’s appalling reputation. It’s worse than the worst smell you have smelt. The first time you try to take a bite, despite the company you’re in, retching becomes a considered, viable option.
How anybody came to devise the first recipe, I cannot guess. Probably by accident, and in much the same way I outlined our experiment. But why that progenitor would have willingly stuck a wad of this brain-colored goo between their cheek and gum is an utter mystery. Taiwanese people don’t drink much, so the alcohol excuse is out. Sheer manly boasting must have been the culprit. “Hey, Cheng, I bet that you won’t eat this!” Just like those American Marines on Okinawa I remember: every year, one would routinely dare another to eat a snail that was well known to be poisonous. Marines cannot turn down a challenge—a slogan doubtless imprinted on the victims’ headstones.
Somehow, the first stinky tofu cook lived, and even thrived, because he went back for more. Head down to Old Shen Keng Street in Taipei to see a hundred different vendors, preparing the dish in myriad ways. The safest is the grilled version, which is served on its own handy stick, slathered in a shrimp, soy, and garlic sauce.
The optimal way to eat this the first time is to take a chop stick and carefully slide the tofu off the stick—and into the trash. Then lick the stick. Do that three or four times until you’re ready to attack the version that comes out of the enormous, bubbling vats that line the street. (These cauldrons always remind me of a scene near the end of Conan the Barbarian.)
After a while, you can even enjoy the cheesy texture and warm taste—but you’ll never get used to the smell.
Recently, there was a stinky tofu festival for which was commissioned a doll named Smery. His head is in the shape of a block of tofu. He is pinching his nose and has broken into a cold sweat. He is posed in a resigned slump and does not look happy.
The back of his head nicely sums it up: “Encounter of Smelly To-fu.”