When I talk of Shanghai, I often speak of the amazing food. And I’m not mistaken in doing so – this city is amazing for the sheer range and quality of the food on offer. You can find restaurants serving food from anywhere – not just all corners of China and the rest of Asia, but also gourmet hamburgers, Indian food, French haute cuisine, Aberdeen Angus steakhouses, Greek taverna… you name it, you can probably eat it here.
However, one of my favourite things in Shanghai is the street food, especially street meat vendors – coal barbecues and iron plates where you choose your raw skewers and they cook and season it to spicy, oily perfection. This is made doubly awesome by the fact that the Chinese word for them is chuànr (串儿) – the Chinese character even looks like a kebab. There is also a huge array of pancake-style foodstuffs and delicious stuffed breads to enjoy, all cooked up with consummate skill by the vendors, especially for you. Most of these snacks cost about 3-4 RMB each (about 25-35p).
However, there is one street food in particular that is not only unappetising, but can occasionally ruin your appetite entirely: chòu dòufu (臭豆腐), or its wonderfully descriptive English name – “stinky tofu”.
Something of a notorious Shanghai speciality, this stuff is one of those things – like raw chicken bits and deep fried insects – that Chinese people seem to eat without any kind of shame whatsoever. To them it’s a totally viable snack, which they cheerfully devour without a second thought. Even if you’re not somebody like me who doesn’t particularly appreciate tofu in the first place, stinky tofu is more of a stomach churner than a stomach filler.
The reason it gets its name is, rather unsurprisingly, because it stinks. It fucking reeks. Not only is it fetid, but the smell is unbelievably pungent, able to penetrate an entire line of stalls selling otherwise delicious street tidbits. The stench grabs you by the throat and clings to your clothes. To put it bluntly, it smells like rotten, soggy death.
The only reason why it’s a popular street snack is because Chinese people don’t dare prepare the stuff at home, otherwise their houses will have that same putrid rank about them for the forseeable future. It’s to be avoided kind of like the fallout that follows a nuclear detonation, only with the kind of stench that could knock a buzzard off a shit wagon.
Why does it smell? Well, it’s all about the preparation. While ingredients vary depending on whereabouts in China you are, the traditional Shanghai recipe involves soaking tofu in a brine of fermented milk and vegetables. For several months. Fermented milk being one of the smells I associate with vomit, this does not seem to me to be a particularly good start. Once it’s positively humming, it’s fried up on the side of the street, much to the chagrin of anybody in a 500 metre radius of the fucking stuff.
Now, apparently – and the reason I don’t know is because I haven’t been able to stomach the smell long enough to actually get around to tasting the stuff – it tastes surprisingly good. To be honest if it didn’t kill you that’d probably count as ‘surprisingly good’, but happily it doesn’t taste anything like how it smells. Wikipedia describes it thusly:
From a distance, the odor of stinky tofu is said to resemble that of rotten garbage or manure, even by its enthusiasts. In some instances the taste has even been compared to rotten meat. In spite of stinky tofu’s smell, most say the flavor is surprisingly mild. It is said the more it smells, the ‘better’ its flavour. Some few people have compared it to the taste of blue cheese. It has also been compared to foie gras.
There is a silver lining, though – to market this vile street snack to westerners who would otherwise run from fear of the threat of some kind of biological warfare, the Chinese have come up with a pretty genius slogan: “Smells smelly, tastes tasty!”
Wordplay like that I can get behind, but as far as chòu dòufu goes, I’m going to stay upwind.