One night during my first months in China, I noticed a strange smell coming from the night market. At first I thought it was the smell of an improperly maintained sewer, festering in the summer humidity – the sickly-sweet odour I’d encountered in Manila earlier that year. I was accustomed enough to it to put it to the back of my mind, and wouldn’t have thought about it further if it hadn’t been for my friends complaining about it. The smell, apparently, was not sewage but food.
Five years later I’ve grown used to, if not exactly enamoured of the smell of 臭豆腐 – literally “stinky tofu.” You don’t find it in the classier areas of Beijing, but getting a waft of it as you walk around a residential area is far from distressing. It’s like the smell of life, greeting you year-round.
So what is this mysterious substance? Well, it’s just regular tofu that’s been left in a brine made from shrimp, vegetables and herbs until it has started to ferment. The final stage is the cooking, and this is where it really starts to pong. A street vendor will fry it or boil it in a simple soup, then serve it to be eaten fresh.
This is our local choudofu guy
The sign says it’s from Hunan, but he’s from Henan, nearly 800km away. He has a huge ice-cream tub full of strips of tofu which he fries on a hotplate. On the right side you can see the uncooked strips.
He has a few other ingredients to add, firstly this thick brown sauce, which he paints on when the cooking is finished.
We’re not sure what’s in the sauce, but it’s like a thick soy, perhaps hoy-sin.
When he’s done with that he’ll add the next ingredient – a mixture of dried spices including rosemary and cumin, sprayed on from a converted plastic bottle.
There’s a second bottle full of dried chilli powder, but nobody wanted that apart from me, so we didn’t get any.
They are 2 kuai each – 20p in English money. Eating them while they are hot is essential.
So, what’s the flavour like? Well, if you’ve had fried tofu before you’ll have an idea of the texture, spongy and slightly moist on the inside, crispy, oily and full of flavour on the outside. But the taste is something else – like a Chinese version of a particularly pungent blue cheese, but sweeter and less acidic – and the taste, instead of hanging around forever, fills your mouth for just a few moments, then is gone as soon as you swallow. Excellent stuff.
V, her sister and her sister’s boyfriend liked it too, though it’s not anything special for them – they have it maybe every other day.