Stinky Tofu: A Taiwanese Classic Born in China

Is this the durian of the protein world?

Stinky tofu, that Taiwanese cheap eats classic purportedly created by accident in China during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), has no shame. A tofu merchant apparently left his bean curd in a vegetable brine for too long; what resulted in that barrel hundreds of years ago is what you smell today. Not literally, but it’s close.

I first tried it in Shenzhen, China about 17 years ago, and couldn’t deal; it was an acquired taste to be sure. But sometimes you gotta give a food another shot.

Of course, there are countless foods considered to be acquired tastes — with stinky tofu being one of them — but I tend to think that kæstur hákarl, the fermented Icelandic shark dish that smells of ammonia, has it beat. Although I haven’t tried kæstur hákarl,  I also haven’t found any desire to sip whatever is under my sink.

Which is to say, stinky tofu isn’t that bad. The aroma is off-putting — if you’re out and about in Taiwan, it’s a night market staple, and a street food tradition. If you want to try it but just can’t do that first bite, add some pepper, chili sauce, or some other condiment of your choice. <<I haven’t found the same solution for a bite of durian.>>

In short, stinky tofu may not be durian, but they do share at least one thing in common.

They could both really use deodorant.


Chinese Desserts: Fried Mantou with Condensed Milk

When much of the world thinks of Chinese food, do bread, dairy and dessert often come to mind?  I’m not even referring to ingredients or dishes from hundreds or thousands of years ago, or Chinese restaurant kitchens adapted to local tastes.

My introduction to 馒头 (mán​tou), steamed wheat bread originally from northern China, is actually one of my fondest food memories.  In 2004 I visited Singapore with my dad, and a couple of natives invited us to try chili crab.  Not only was the crab delicious – but it was equally fun to sop up the chili sauce with fried mantou.

It’s easy to satisfy salty and umami cravings in China, but what if wanted to grab me somethin’ sweet?

From having lived all over Shenzhen, China – a city built by and on internal migration – I had come to get familiar with menus from regional Chinese cuisines.  However, based on those experiences, there seemed to be no better way to conclude a meal drowned in reused cooking oil and loaded with MSG than by getting served A) sliced tomatoes covered in granulated sugar, B) caramelized potatoes that will singe your mouth or C) durian anything.

Shenzhen, China- Fried Manotu with Condensed Milk

Or, occasionally, there was choice D) fried (金炸 jīnzhà) mantou with 炼奶 (liàn​nǎi), or sweetened condensed milk.

Have you tried this combo before?  If you’re really looking to overdo it, order it with can of root beer.

Jabuticaba, or the Brazilian Grapetree

Native to the Brazilian states of  Minas Gerais, Goiás and São Paulo, the jabuticaba, jaboticaba, or Brazilian grapetree (species Plinia cauliflora), is known for fruit that bear purplish skin and whitish pulp; interestingly, the fruit grows right on the bark. Jabuticaba a tropical tree that thrives in sunlight, reaching nearly 10-33 feet at its highest; yet, it is also commonly found among bonsai collections. The name comes from an extinct Brazilian language called Tupi, whereas jaboti means tortoise and caba means place; though, others have translated the meaning to be “like turtle fat,” in reference to the jabuticaba’s white pulp.

Jabuticaba (Brazilian grapetree) 嘉宝果 – Zhangjiajie, Hunan, China*

Unusually, I first noticed the jabuticaba in Zhangjiajie, Hunan, China, a place most famous for its innumerable quartzite sandstone columns.  Walking through a local market, I encountered the 嘉宝果 (jiābǎoguǒ), or “joyful treasure fruit.”  If you’re wondering how that name was chosen for a food native to Brazil, my suspicion is that the 嘉宝/jiābǎo was nearly homophonous to the “jabu” of jabuticaba, and in keeping with Chinese naming practices for foreign words, it sounded like a lucky coincidence.  It grows in subtropical parts of China, namely in parts of Guangdong, Yunnan, and Fujian provinces.

I asked the vendor for a taste, and sure enough, the fruit tasted like grape candy.  Jabuticaba are often eaten raw, are used in preserves, and to make liquor.

*In case you were wondering, the first two characters of the description of the fruit are 深山 (shēnshān), which simply means “deep in the mountains.”

%d bloggers like this: