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.


Indonesian Street Food: Protein-Packed Ketoprak

Ketoprak, one of my favorite street foods, may not be as common a sight at the kaki lima (street carts) dotting Jakarta as satay, or nasgor (nasi goreng = fried rice). But given the scale of the city, it’s out there, waiting for you by a clogged canal, randomly neon-lit bridge, or a group of mischievous cats.

Ketoprak — not to be confused with the Javanese theater style of the same name — is a vegetarian dish amply covered in protein; fellow omnivores might want to add some satay to really raise the bar. It consists of peanut sauce, aka bumbu kacang, fried tofu, lontong (banana leaf-packed rice cakes), bihun (rice vermicelli), taoge (bean sprouts), garlic, palm sugar, fried onions/shallots, and if you’re lucky, an egg or two. Slosh all of that fun stuff around, dip in some krupuk, or shrimp crackers, and you’ve got some filling Indonesian cheap eats.

And if you’re like, naively asking for pedas banget — extra spicy — you’ll be glad cucumber slices accompany the meal on the side.

Have you ever tried ketoprak? What are your favorite Indonesian street foods?

Jakarta’s Durian Street (Indonesia)

Many a time I’ve tried to like durians, but it just doesn’t happen … then again, it’s not as if there’s a rule saying I should.

Nevertheless, I’ve had it fresh, in a shake, in a cake, as lempuk, with all resulting in failure. And it’s not even the awful odor that does me in — I’ve generally eaten it in places that smell a lot worse.

With that displeasing transition in tow, I present to you, JakartaIndonesia. Jakarta is one of the friendliest places I’ve ever been, but like many other cities, it takes some patience to get to the good eats. They are expanding their metro system and other forms of public transit, which is good, but it also makes the metropolis’ infamous traffic that much worse.

In short, getting to Jalan Raya Mangga Besar, or what I have deemed to be durian street (at least at nighttime), is vexing. Located in the northern part of the city relatively close to the old Dutch fort Fatahillah, and Jakarta’s Chinatown — near where a lot of the metro construction is happening — Jalan Raya Mangga Besar is busy during the day, but really buzzes at night with lots and lots of street food

It’s also where you can find stall after stall of durian, the spiky fruit native to Kalimantan and Sumatra, Indonesia, among other countries in Southeast Asia.

As it had been a few years since my last taste of something better suited for college mischief than human consumption, I took a walk along “durian street” for a small, small nibble:

How to Order Satay in Indonesia

Many countries have their own versions of satay — shashlik throughout the former Soviet Union, kebabs, brochetas — or in Indonesian, sate. Though in each country you will find different proteins awaiting their grilled fates — chicken, beef, lamb, pork are the four most common — to me it’s the spices and condiments with which satay is prepared and served that distinguish the meal. For instance, Azerbaijan has a pomegranate molasses called narsharab, Lebanon toum, or whipped garlic sauce, and Japan, its soy sauce and mirin mixture.

However, in Indonesia, the most popular is bumbu kacang, a sweetened peanut sauce. In second place would be a savory, turmeric-based glop used in sate Padang, named for a city in Sumatra.

With the backgrounder out of the way, let’s say you’re walking by the street stalls of Jakarta or Bali and come across a sate kaki lima (street vendor, but meaning “five legs”). Here’s a primer (with a video to boot) for how to customize and order your desired plate of satay.

indonesian satay street food
Chicken, Beef, and Lamb Satay, at Nurshabat Street Stall in Bali, Indonesia

-sate ayam (chicken)
-sate babi (pork)
-sate daging (beef, but it also means meat)
-sate kambing (lamb)

Now, if you want the sate as is — you know, with all the fat and cartilage — you can utter satu porsi sate ___makasih (one portion of ___ satay, thanks!).
And if you want just the meat? Try daging aja, and add a tanpa lemak for good measure. That means “just the meat,” and “without the fat.” Tanpa = without.

Want a mix of the different proteins? Say campur campur (“cham-pur cham-pur”). Campur means mix, so you can use it for fruit shakes, sambal (hot sauces), whatever you fancy.

At some point, the vendor might ask berapa tusuk? (how many skewers?) n.b. tusuk gigi means toothpick, quite a useful invention once you’re done gnawing away at the skewers.

I hope that this Indonesian satay primer will help you in your travels!

Street Food or Subliminal Messaging? Welcome to Sri Lanka

Kandy is an historical city about 2-2.5 hours east of the commercial hub and largest city of Colombo.  If you still maintain that Colombo is the political capital, oh no, that title now goes to Sri Jayawadenapura Kotte or Beijing, depending on your level of cynicism.  Anyway, Kandy is known as home to the Temple of the Tooth, a sacred Buddhist relic, tea plantations and a pleasant botanical garden, all of which make for a fine weekend trip from Sri Lanka’s largest city.

When I visited years ago, no meals were served on the train between Colombo and Kandy.  No problem, that’s not necessarily standard practice, and there were plenty of options around both train stations.

When returning to Colombo, I was in a bit of a rush, and bought a few grease-laden fried potato snacks, often packaged in local newspapers, but this time, mysteriously wrapped in someone’s health records.

fried potato snack sri lanka
Bad Omens: Street Food Packaging in Kandy, Sri Lanka

It seems your kidneys are fine, Sanjeewa.  Just keep away from the fried potatoes.

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