When you walk through the streets of Taipei, every so often you notice that there is a quite disgusting smell. It comes and goes and puts you in mind of open sewers. This smell is the smell of one of Taiwan’s most famous foods, and on a recent trip there my wife decided that she wanted to try it. It was an odd thing to want to do, I felt. Who smells a shit, and thinks, ‘I fancy eating that!’?
The food is what the Japanese call shudofu and whose name is commonly translated as stinky tofu. I don’t know about you, but I’m of a mind to think that if you want a food to appeal to people, you might want use a euphemism for ‘stinky’. It’s an honest name, though, and it perfectly describes the food.
Stinky tofu is basically a form of fermented tofu and is commonly found at street stalls or at night markets in Taiwan. Thus, as darkness began to fall and dinnertime approached we made our way to a night market which wasn’t too far from our hotel. Once there, it wasn’t hard to find a stall selling stinky tofu. We just followed our noses.
In a Reuters article of 2013, the writer Michael Gold described the smell as ‘a cross between burning garbage and body odour’. So why, you have to think, would anybody choose to eat that? Well, apparently, it tastes a lot better than it smells. It would have to, though, really, wouldn’t it?
The fermentation process can take several days or even a week and the tofu sits in a brine which can be made with cabbage, milk, meat or shrimp. Individual stinky tofu outlets have their own secret recipes. And there are plenty of variations to the dish. Common is deep-fried stinky tofu, but you can get soft stinky tofu, spicy stinky tofu and several other versions, all of which have the word stinky in their name. They say the smellier it is the better it will taste. If that is true, we had chosen well.
What arrived at out table was a bowl containing a few squares of deep-fried tofu in a broth with the colour and aroma of unflushed toilet water. The assault on our nose made it feel as if we had chosen to dine in a station’s public convenience where the cleaners had long been on strike. I had a flashback to visiting my grandparents as a child and going into the bathroom just after granddad had been in. That had been a daring game my brothers and I used to play. But we wouldn’t have dreamed of eating there!
With more than a little trepidation, I readied my chopsticks. My wife was less hesitant and delved straight in.
‘It’s quite nice,’ she said. I looked at her doubtfully. After all she often eats natto in Japan. Natto is a hideous sticky mess of fermented soy beans, which like its cousin the stinky tofu, has an aroma best described as rank rotten. They say natto tastes much better than it smells, too, but to be honest I have never really found that it does. I’m not a fussy eater by any means and will try almost anything once, but some things, no matter how healthy they are proclaimed to be, really deserve to be no more than a cultural dare.
‘It’s honestly not bad,’ she said. ‘Try it.’
I raised a piece to my mouth, began to chew and waited for the abomination of flavour that would surely come. Well, it was better than it smelt, of that there was no doubt, but I couldn’t really say it was pleasant. It was really just like having fried tofu in an extremely unpleasant smelling place. Every so often you got this horrible whiff, as though a smelly, fat bloke had just come running in on a summer night and begun airing his unwashed armpits in your face as you ate. I had a few more bites and let my wife have the rest. She even spooned up the soup and drank it as if it didn’t taste like it and been strained through the aforementioned fat bloke’s underpants. I was glad I had tried it. It was something to tell people. But it was best left, I felt, as a one-off culinary challenge.
Outside as we wandered the narrow streets in the area, I was presented with a real food dare of sorts. We had just passed a sign for the less-than-ambitious sounding Taiwan National Normal University, when a group of university students ran up and excitedly asked me if I would eat some food they were proffering. Being a glutton and not having filled myself up on the stinky tofu, I agreed, but began to get a bit suspicious when one of them then produced a phone and began to film me.
‘Wait. What is it?’ I asked, thinking it might have been prudent to ask that before agreeing to eat something being presented by complete strangers.
‘It’s okay,’ they said. ‘It is pig blood.’
‘Why are you filming it? I don’t want to be on the Internet.’
They assured me that it was just a bit of fun. They had to find a foreigner to eat pig blood and film it to present as evidence. It wouldn’t, they promised, be posted anywhere. It was some kind of game, I gathered.
I tried the food and it was actually rather nice. Not surprisingly, it was a bit like black pudding. I told them it was nice, they stopped filming and ran away again giggling. I saw them later, huddled on a street corner checking things off on a sheet of paper – marking off the challenges completed, I guessed. Or hoped. But if you find a video on youtube entitled something like, ‘Look at this bald foreigner say he loves eating pig cock!’ do let me know.