I’ve been in Hong Kong for a while now and I had been meaning to try the stinky tofu (chòu dòufu) but just hadn’t gotten around to it, especially because all the other lovely hawker stand street food offerings can be so alluring. But last weekend a gigantic street food stall (? inbuilt stall?) had such a huge variety that it was just too difficult to choose something good, so I ended up choosing something I was quite certain I was not going to enjoy very much, but that I just had to try before leaving the East: deep fried stinky tofu.
It cost around 8 HKD (1 USD) for one square of it and was recommended, by a nearby English-speaking local girl who decided to help me out in my weakest moment, with thick hoisin sauce. Stinky tofu is prepared by soaking soft yet firm tofu in a brine made of fermented milk, veggies and milk as well as herbs for a few months until the tofu itself ferments. Blocks of it are then tossed into sizzling hot oil until the outside becomes crispy and golden brown and the inside warms up and melts a little bit. They are handed over to the customers, as most street food snacks, on a stick.
The smell, yes, is pretty intense. But the surprising things is that a bite of this stuff tastes EXACTLY as it smells (though a little less powerful). Putrid, funky, rotten. “Like some sort of aged cheese?” No. At least for me, stinky tofu is not in the least bit comparable to cheese, the aged, blue and rotten of which I adore. The more aged, blue and rotten a cheese, in fact, the better – I often say. And I mean it. I love fermented dairy. But this stuff is not like aged cheese at all – it’s flavor isn’t piercing sharp and tangy, making your eyes open wide and water, your tongue push up against the roof of your mouth in a combination of pain and glee. It is base to the acid of cheese. It is putrid but in a subtler, feinter way, in a way that tortures slowly. Honestly, it really does smell like gym socks after 2 hours on the treadmill (someone else’s gym socks, not your own – everyone kind of loves the smell of their own sweat…) or the air around an uncovered barrel of garbage after it has been sitting in the sun on a humid day for a few hours. The odor lingers around the stand, never too sharp but very unpleasant.
The taste is pretty grotesque as well. Sweaty, rotten and unhealthy-tasting, like the first sip of a glass of milk you realized has turned. As you chew it, the inside falls apart and the fermented brine seeps out like some sort of maddening juice, like that trickle of garbage liquid that seeps out of a ripped bag of garbage when you lift it after a week in the sun. It floods your mouth and coats it in an unpleasant, acidic twang. The hoisin sauce saves it though, taking some of that acidity and sweaty feet taste away, or at least mixing it with a powerful salty, sweet and tangy flavor of its own (vinegar, sugar, chiles)
The texture actually isn’t bad – what deep fried dish isn’t pleasantly crispy and crunchy and slightly oily? All that jazz on the outside and soft and mushy like pudding or calf brains on the inside. If only it weren’t for that odor…