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.

Chiayi’s Turkey Rice (Taiwan)

When I crave turkey, not many countries come to mind.  For sure, the US does, for its Thanksgiving meal.  Also, the Yucatán in Mexico, where it’s quite common to find guajolote (“turkey” in Mexican Spanish) on a menu. But, how about Taiwan?

Chiayi (Jiayi-嘉義) - Train Station A few years ago, while on my way to a friend’s wedding, I was visiting Chiayi, a small Taiwanese city sandwiched between Taichung and Tainan, in the central western part of Taiwan.  As far as Taiwanese cities go, it’s quite typical – you’ve got your mopeds and scooters, giant signs, and bustling food markets – but there is one particular food that stands out. Turkey rice, or 火雞飯 (火鸡饭).  Amusingly, turkey in Chinese translates as “fire chicken.”

Chiayi (Jiayi-嘉義) - Turkey Rice (鶏肉飯)

Although turkeys were introduced to present-day Taiwan by Dutch colonists in the 1600s, it was only in the 1950s that they really took off on Chiayi menus.  Apparently, some liaisons with the former Chiayi US air force base were longing for a taste of home, a longing which inspired local chefs to add it to bowls of rice. In Taiwan, I would generally make a beeline for oyster pancakes and pineapple cakes, but the turkey rice proved to be an amusing if unexpected find in the crowded field of Taiwanese specialties.

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